At some point in its latter half, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham, a chamber comedy directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan, overreaches and crosses the realm of entertainment. The riot of colours on the screen, which had initially seemed like a happy departure from the muted palette of Malayalam realist movies, starts to hurt the eyes. The wacky sense of humour the film wears on its sleeves turns iterative. The central issue, the disappearance of a treasured piece of jewellery that tests the limits of the already crumbling marriage of Haripriya (Grace Antony) and Pavithran (Nivin Pauly), becomes too petty to pay any attention.
The film does recover, although partially, close to the climactic scene. Yet, one cannot shake off that bitter aftertaste. How possible is it to resume a discarded trial of laughter?
Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham has a clever design. Its prime location, a Munnar hotel that the couple moves into for a three-day vacation, a final attempt to save their marriage, has a tacky aesthetic symbolic of the financial and mental abuse the hotel staff quietly endure. The walls, the couches and the uniform of the employees are colour-coded. The exhausted machinery of a blood-sucking enterprise.
Every bit of the chaos that unfolds in the hotel stems from this labour exploitation by an industrialist who, we come to know, is holidaying in Sri Lanka. The film’s title suggests that the kalaham (commotion) was caused by the wife (Kamini) and the gold (kanakam), but as it turns out, capitalism is the real villain.
Ratheesh bases the movie’s formal style on television soaps. He picks the popular soap opera themes – mousy men and their dominant female partners, a woman crying over her gold jewellery, and a middle-class marriage in trouble – and turns them on their head to make them more human. What moves Haripriya to the verge of an emotional outburst isn’t the loss of the jewellery but the utter lack of love in her marriage. Everyone likes to push around Joby (Vinay Forrt), the good-natured manager of the inn. He is not timid but patient and earnest, qualities that are not well-received in a society where the arrogant and the dishonest are generously rewarded, where the might is always right.
The context and the details in the background are fascinating. But the movie’s driving force is its stream of visual and verbal gags, some of them hilarious and a lot of others laboured.
The comedy is heavily dependent on performances. Jaffer Idukki, who plays Sura, a stranger at the inn’s bar who pokes his nose into the theft case, is an absolute delight even when he is blathering and stretching out a joke. He puts to good use his Idukki tongue and stage-acting skills to become the best part of the film. Jaffer Idukki is a man deeply tied to his surroundings, a boon and a bane at once. Take him out of his familiar turf, there might not be much he could do. Yet, the candour in his acting style is unique. One of the film’s funniest bits is his confrontation with a senior novelist (Joy Mathew) about a fancy expression in one of his stories.
Nivin Pauly, who had been groping in the dark post Premam, fits perfectly here, losing his superstar robe to play the clown and keenly participating in self-effacing jokes. The actor looks at ease, a tremendous weight off his chest, like someone glad to be home after a rough journey. Pauly leads a dream ensemble that embodies the spirit of the movie.
Making a comedy, these days, must resemble ziplining. In the last 100 years, the movie audience has consumed numerous kinds of comedies. So much so that a significant section of them, who are not passive viewers, know a joke before it gets cracked. They have learned to hold their laugh midway to look for the joke’s moral consequences.
In Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham, Ratheesh goes for the kind of comedy which is unbridled, characterised by a risky disregard for the norms. He takes confident digs at new Malayalam cinema’s reverence for political correctness. In the title credits, he not only chooses to use his caste surname but draws attention to it with a tongue-in-cheek voice-over. Not that flaunting a caste surname in movies deserves a badge of honour, but it successfully sets the tone. Sometimes the characters respond to an SOS call with a repartee. The film sympathises with the two women, Haripriya and Shalini (Vincy), but that does not stop it from mocking them, putting them in awkward situations where they cut a silly figure in front of the men.
But then, it is foolish to assume that irreverent humour could never go wrong. It is funny when Sathyan, a bellboy, tells Joby with a straight face that he would never steal because he is a “good Nair boy.” But when Manaf (Rajesh Madhavan) emphasises his minority status for the third time, or when the film, after it hits a thick wall of vapidity, makes the two women go into a nasty scuffle, one can only maintain a grim face. Not only are they misplaced but also bland, embellished with an unwarranted background score. Ratheesh does a good job of setting up the ground for comedy, but he fails to flesh out the characters and create a dynamic narrative sprinkled with natural humour. To be politically correct or not should be much easier than making a movie that never turns boring.
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