In cinematographer-turned-director Amal Neerad’s Comrade In America (CIA), Dulquer Salmaan plays Aji Mathew, a young communist living in Pala, a small town in Kerala. He is the third communist protagonist to grace Malayalam cinema in 2017. And while the Left parties in India seem to have sold the ideology out, these reel heroes continue to staunchly advocate its virtues.
The likeable thing about CIA is that it takes a fiery young Malayalee communist out of his comfort zone of romance, and makes him listen to contrasting points of view. Like a Chinese man saying, “I left the country for freedom,” and a rich American cousin talking about the capitalist nation that helped him build a life he is proud of. The decay in the institution, although not central to the film’s plot, is acknowledged.
There is also a scene in which Aji, with adorable irreverence, tells his idols Lenin, Marx, and Che Guerra that their sombre persona is just a facade, referring to their seldom talked about romantic side. An innocuous letter that Aji Mathew and his comrades write on their Party’s letterpad – “Dear Comrade, this comrade is our comrade. Please do the needful” – helps him make his first friend in Mexico when he lands there as part of a lethal plan. It’s a hilarious tongue-in-cheek moment.
But to say CIA is about communism would be taking things too far. The ideology is merely a ploy. The real focus is on the charming Dulquer, who plays it safe as Aji Mathew, essentially a collage of characters the actor has played and aced several times before.
The film knows its target audience well and caters to the multitude of Dulquer’s young male fans. Dulquer rides a Bullet, and gets into drunken conversations about love and life with the apostles of communism. He is at loggerheads with his father over their political beliefs. He falls in love with the prettiest girl in college, with whom he sings a romantic duet in the first half. And in the second half of the film, he leaves Kerala and goes backpacking, in search of his beloved. There is also a monologue in which he advises the young Malayalee male on how to overcome breakups in style.
Although the plot bears an uncanny resemblance to Samir Thahir’s 2014 film, Neelakasham Pachakkadal Chuvanna Bhoomi, Amal Neerad’s film is more fun, and more photogenic than the former. Writer Shibin Francis humorously incorporates bits and pieces from contemporary Kerala politics into the film. There are witty lines aplenty. Dulquer, with his formidable co-stars Soubin Shahir and Dileesh Pothan, pulls off the comic scenes well. There is also Siddique in a well-written role as Aji Mathew’s father, a righteous Congress man who affectionately tolerates his headstrong son’s leftist inclinations.
Moreover, the film is set on a terrain Malayalam cinema has never seen before – Mexico and the endless strip of parched land that lies along the Mexico-US border.
However, what’s strikingly absent from the film is – soul.
Aji Mathew, in the initial half, is an egotist consumed by his own beliefs, wrapped up in his talent and innate charm. When the film ends, he is more or less the same immature youth, now trying to heal his bruised masculine pride. There is no reason for the audience to root for this guy (other than Dulquer’s good-looks of course) when he decides to risk his life for Sarah Mary Kurian (Karthika Muraleedharan), the rich NRI girl he had been courting. Their relationship, which is crucial to the storyline, is established too hastily. Several pertinent portions of the film are drowned by this fixation on Dulquer’s charisma and heroism.
The illegal crossing to the United States through the Mexican desert is a theme of immense possibilities. But if Gael Garcia Bernal’s Desierto was a gripping work that brilliantly portrayed the racism and anti-refugee sentiments currently brewing in the Western world, CIA‘s portrayal of the subject is an insincere travesty that has its eyes set on the box-office. Gopi Sunder’s composition, Vaanam Thilayhilakkanu, which lends the background score to Aji’s journey, is the saving grace of the second half, which is otherwise let down by patchy characterisations (John Vijay’s Sri Lankan refugee character, for instance) and cliché-ridden sequences. Chandni Sreedharan as Pallavi looks promising at first, but like everyone else, she too vanishes in the unbearable brightness of Dulquer Salmaan’s stardom.
Emotional short-hands like a dying friend and starving children are used to make the point. Yet nothing works, thanks to a lack of sincerity.
Amal Neerad and DoP Renadive fill the frames with buttery orange light, wiping out any hint of blue, much like in Iyyobinte Pusthakam and Bachelor Party, which are loved more for this chic camerawork than anything else. Whether the peculiar lighting and colour grading work that grossly dominates the screen is excellent cinematography or not is debatable. However, Neerad’s style of visuals is undeniably charming.
Despite having a few impressive moments and a stylish and ever-improving star actor in the lead, Comrade In America ends up as a film that doesn’t quite fill the grand canvas it is set in. It takes a foreign road to teach a young man some essential lessons in life, but gets lost on the way.
The Comrade In Arms (CIA) review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.