This is part of a series where Silverscreen recommends films, documentaries, shorts, songs or scenes from seminal films that make for a compelling watch.
Sreenivasan’s Vadakkunokkiyanthram (Mariner’s Compass), a 1989 film, ends in a scene where the protagonist walks out to his backyard at midnight, shining a torch at the audience. Bewildered and terrified, he looks for an invisible enemy, a phenomenon that the audience knows, is a figment of his imagination.
Sreenivasan, the film’s maker who also plays the lead man, Thalathil Dineshan, performs the scene with calculated brilliance. The backyard is Dineshan’s unruly mind that no amount of medical help seems to be able to tame, and the enemy he is looking for is none but himself. Vadakkunokkiyanthram, a dark comedy, is perhaps the most acclaimed work of Sreenivasan, the actor-writer-filmmaker who brought to Malayalam cinema the stories of undesirable anti-heroes at a time when the film industry was revolving around alpha-males who revolutionised society, fought villains and won love.
Vadakkunokkiyanthram, in hindsight, has the feel of a small indie film – it has an ensemble cast that consists of character artistes and not popular stars (except for Parvathy who was a bankable female lead then), an unconventional plot-line that handles the subject of mental health, and has at its centre, a man who doesn’t have the physical attributes to be a mainstream hero. It also has a rich foreground of dark-comedy. Sreenivasan’s sharp sense of humour is evident not just in the dialogues and staging of the scenes, but in the structure of the narrative that is bookended by two similar scenes that hint at Dineshan’s complicated mindscape.
Dineshan lives in a small town with his overbearing mother and a younger sister. He runs a printing press that used to belong to his father. When we see him first, he is frantically writing to a psychologist about his predicament. His wedding day is around the corner, and an ingrained lack of confidence is imploding within him. “She is a beautiful woman,” he writes, as though talking about an imminent danger. The film follows Dineshan as he struggles through the wedding night and the subsequent days as an acute sense of being inferior wreaks havoc on his family and his life.
Vadakkunokkiyanthram has a gaze radically different from that of an Aki Kaurismaki film when it comes to portraying empathy. The latter uses elements like topnotch deadpan, matter-of-fact execution, and contrasting background score (an exhilarating pop number in a scene of tragedy) to produce films that side with the downtrodden and evoke sympathy for them. In Kaurismaki’s film, hope is shrouded in many layers of hopelessness.
In Sreenivasan’s film, Dineshan hardly gets any sympathy. The sense of hopelessness the film evokes only feels brutal. The protagonist is laughed at, while the societal system that is responsible for his low self-esteem is spared of any blame. The scenes set in the house imply that Dineshan grew up as a timid person, probably under the shadow of his extroverted, fair-complexioned younger brother who was preferred by his mother over him. There are jokes about his dark-complexion that people around him hurl at him every now and then; these scenes are set from the POV of the abusers.
Nevertheless, the film manages to strike a fine balance between a mainstream comedy and an offbeat dark drama, thanks to an intelligent screenplay that has no loose threads. Its witty self-deprecating one-liners have stood the test of time, and the wedding photograph of Dineshan and Sobha has become iconic in Kerala’s pop-culture. Millennials’ love for the film – going by the rumours – has inspired Dhyan Sreenivasan, the filmmaker’s son, to lend a contemporary make-over to the film through his directorial debut, Love Action Drama, which has Nivin Pauly and Nayanthara playing the lead. The film is under production.