Last seen 26 years ago as a bratty Maya in Ente Sooryputhrikku, Amala Akkineni makes a comeback to Malayalam cinema with C/o Saira Banu. The cast has no big male star to push it to the audience but that's unnecessary in a Manju Warrier film, given that she's a superstar in her own right.
Directed by Antony Sony, Manju plays Saira Banu, a postwoman who lives with her adoptive son, Joshua (Shane Nigam). The incongruity in their names – one Muslim and the other Christian – has a history which is unraveled as the film progresses and there is an element of surprise involved in this which I shall not reveal. The rapport that Banu and Joshua share, with the mother being the boy's biggest confidante, is reminiscent of the warmth we saw between Urvashi and Meera Jasmine in Achuvinte Amma.
There are several moments in the film that put a smile on your face – the old Brahmin lady next door who craves for non-veg food from Banu's household, Banu's serial failure at driving tests (and I so relate to that), Joshua's attempts to stop his loquacious mother from telling his friends all about his crush, and so on.
As we see the little lives of Saira and Joshua chugging along pleasantly, we are shown the hotshot lawyer with a heart of gold, Annie John Tharavady (Amala) and her life in parallel. At some point their lives cross and the film takes a dark turn.
It's at this juncture that we understand the significance of many of the seemingly unimportant details the director had woven into the film earlier. Contemporary issues in Kerala society, like the Kiss of Love campaign (spearheaded in the film by the sprightly Niranjana Anoop), the influx of Bengali migrants, and the increasing display of religious bigotry also find a relevant place in the script.
C/o Saira Banu offers a glimpse of the frightening maze that is the justice system for ordinary people who have no money or powerful connections. Unlike Pink, which was largely a realistic film but chose to bend the court room scenes to accommodate a resolution that would please the audience, C/o Saira Banu does not relent so easily. Instead, the crucial argument that ultimately changes the tide is based on a very simple yet important point about the law.
The resolution left me feeling cold, although one cannot deny that this is indeed how the justice system works. However, it's not that the film arrives at this resolution solely because of its commitment to realism – its moral compass is tilted towards taking a compassionate outlook at the real criminal only because he has a mother who loves him deeply (and no, we're not talking of Saira here). Saying anything more would be a spoiler and I shall therefore constrain myself.
Drishyam, too, forced us to think about the difference between the law and justice. However, I couldn't shake off the feeling that the actual people behind the crime were let off the hook too easily in C/o Saira Banu. This is especially troubling when we consider that the victim comes from the dregs of society. Although the film does end on a note that suggests that the victim is not forgotten, it's far from justice being served.
C/o Saira Banu is a competent thriller with powerful performances (needless to add in a Manju film, but anyway!) that will keep you invested till the end. The troubling questions it left me with have to do with my belief that art is our last resort for bridging the great inequalities in real life. And to have that snatched away left me unsatisfied, despite my rationality telling me that this is exactly what might have happened in real life.