Film Review: ‘Varathan’: A Dark survival thriller cloaked as poetry on reel
By Jinju S
I went to watch Amal Neerad’s latest directorial venture, Varathan, without reading any reviews, watching its trailer or even giving much thought to it. Having settled down with coffee and popcorn, I kept my fingers crossed hoping that this wouldn’t be a waste of my two-and-a half hours. But there was a small voice at the back of my head that reassured me that Fahadh Faasil was the Aamir Khan (my most favourite actor of all times and all places) of Mollywood, following the “quality over quantity” mantra when it came to choosing his films, and so we would at least get our money’s worth, if not more.
To say that Varathan exceeded my expectations is an understatement. It was an absolutely mind-blowing experience that totally drew me into the narrative with its gripping story-telling, breathtaking visuals, haunting background music and flawless performance by all the actors, especially Fahadh Faasil and Aishwarya Lakshmi in the lead roles. Varathan, which is a slang word in Malayalam for an outsider, tells the tale of a young couple, Abin (aka Aby) and Priya, who move to a village in a rural hill station of Kerala after the husband loses his job in Dubai and the wife suffers a miscarriage, looking for peace and quiet, while Abin tries to sort out his career. They initially try to brush aside the hostility and prying stares they face from the villagers as the result of a small-town mentality that views them as outsiders and finds their cosmopolitan attitudes and lifestyle hard to digest. But these instances snowball into a grim life-or-death encounter that leaves the couple with no choice but to fight. The fact that the film leaves you wondering until the fag end of the second half as to whether it’s turning out to be a murder mystery, a horror flick or an emotional thriller is testimony to Amal Neerad’s spectacular talent as a director. The POV shots add to the dark, sinister ambience of the film.
Varathan is an ode to all women everywhere – across class, caste, nationalities, and religions – who have suffered sexual violence or harassment at some point of their life. To find a woman who has not been a victim of such behaviour in our patriarchal world would be more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack. It brilliantly depicts how instances of so-called “eve-teasing” like leering stares, vulgar comments, sexually suggestive catcalls, songs or jokes dripping with sexual innuendos, unsolicited sexual advances, and the voyeurism of Peeping Toms (who now have technology in the form of surreptitious mobile cameras to their aid), which are often trivialised by society at large – with the women being mocked for over-reacting if they complain or object, or worse still, being blamed for inviting such attention through their dressing, talking or mannerisms – can quickly escalate to engulf a woman in her worst nightmare, if not nipped in the bud. It is a dark emotional thriller which gives out its message loud and clear: zero tolerance to sexual harassment. Varathan is a film that has great significance in this age of #MeToo campaigns where more and more women are daring to speak out against sexual harassment.
This film is a breath of fresh air among formulaic family dramas and thrillers as it busts several stereotypes with aplomb. It shows us the flip side of the much-celebrated rustic life of Kerala: the toxic masculinity that pervades its social mores, customs and lifestyles; the hypocrisy of its moral policing and sexual repression that goes hand in hand with misogyny, voyeurism, and sex crimes; the narrow mindset that views every outsider as a “varathan” and any lifestyle that is different from theirs as deviant; the total disregard of individual freedom and privacy. Varathan is a film which ruthlessly tears apart the idealised images of village life that are perpetuated in usual discussions of the city/village binary.
It also subtly subverts gender stereotypes with its gentle, soft-spoken hero, who will not kill even a cockroach in his house and has to be helped by his feisty wife in that regard, makes tea for his wife, is “effeminate” in his attitudes and demeanour by traditional patriarchal standards and yet is deeply loved, admired, and respected by his bold and beautiful wife. Here we have a husband who moves back to India with his wife after losing his job in Dubai, stays at his wife’s family property in a remote hill station of Kerala while he scouts for new career prospects, whose wife puts the food on the table during his phase of unemployment with her work-from-home IT projects, and yet doesn’t suffer from any kind of “inferiority complex”. Here we have a wife who does not look down upon her husband because he is jobless but actively defends him in front of her family and supports him in his career crisis, who enjoys her husband’s tea as much as she loves baking cakes. Here we have two equal, loving partners – no henpecked husband or submissive wife.
The climax of the movie with its jaw-dropping stunt scenes is executed with realistic perfection. The transformation of the mild, non-confrontational hero into a fire-breathing fighter battling for the sake of his family would sound incredulous on paper but such is the directorial brilliance and the finesse of the script that you gulp it down with relish while watching the film. It shows what happens when an individual is provoked beyond his breaking point. The final scene of the film, set two weeks after the climax, is also a stereotype-breaker in the sense that it reaffirms that life goes on as usual despite the horrible trauma that the couple had to undergo. Rape and sexual violence are not shown as the end of life as they know it; there’s no talk of honour or impurity; this is another ordeal overcome with supreme maturity and presence of mind by two understanding adults.
It is to the credit of the cinematographer and the director that almost every frame and every object that the gaze of the camera falls upon – be it the cockroach in the initial and the final scenes, the gun in the closet, the cake-frosting equipment, the knife with which jam is slathered on the bread or the old and dusty “Trespassers will be shot” board – is suffused with metaphoric significance that unravels only at the very end. Varathan is indeed poetry on reel with a timely message for society and a must-watch.
Dr. Jinju S. is an Assistant Professor of English at M.E.S. College, Nedumkandam in Kerala. She has a PhD in English Literature from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, where she worked on the politics and ethics of post-9/11 fiction. She loves reading, writing poetry and short fiction, playing with her son Jizan, deep conversations, travelling to new places, watching movies and listening to music. She blogs here and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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