Under difficult circumstances, when film industries across the country had come to a standstill, director Mahesh Narayanan and producers Fahadh Faasil and Nazriya Nazim decided to make C U Soon. At least the film would offer employment to 50 members of the crew, Mahesh told TNM in an interview.
But C U Soon, which released on Amazon Prime Video on September 1, has accomplished more than just that. It has heralded a unique storytelling technique in Indian cinema, making the case for minimalism in a country where the popular medium has tended to be extravagant and larger-than-life.
The idea of telling a story entirely through screens may not be new (it has been done before and quite well in films like Searching) but Mahesh's film isn't only about the form. And the theme justifies the choice â€” an online relationship that takes a mysterious turn. How much can we tell about a person when our bond with them is defined by how much they reveal through a screen?
There are three main characters in C U Soon â€” Jimmy (Roshan Mathew), Anumol Sebastian (Darshana Rajendran) and Kevin (Fahadh Faasil). Even in a regular film, directors often use elaborate voiceovers to introduce characters and establish the relationships among them. This works well in some films (like the fun Ohm Shanti Oshana mind-voice of Pooja Mathew) but in many others, it's a lazy writing choice that passes for characterisation.
C U Soon, however, respects the intelligence and involvement of the viewers. We're expected to work to understand what's going on â€” it's not just the text being typed on screen or the emoticons accompanying the messages, there are subtle cues like the three dots when someone is typing something but then erasing it (Why did they change their mind? Why are they rephrasing what they typed) or the blue ticks and 'seen' notifications that declare that a message has been received but the person on the other end has chosen not to respond (Why not? Are they hiding something? Have they been prevented from replying?). Even the location of the characters is revealed through how people save numbers on their phones.
This may not stand out while watching the film, because we're so used to seeing and understanding these symbols and hence absorb everything automatically, but one must realise that all of this is deliberately and painstakingly worked into the screenplay.
The film begins with Jimmy, who works in the UAE, finding a match on Tinder. And so it begins. The conversation jumping from the app to Google Hangouts. The natural progression would have been WhatsApp but Anumol doesn't have a SIM and lonely Jimmy who wears his heart on the sleeve, doesn't probe further.
It's not only the young who depend on devices. Jimmy's middle-aged mother in the US, too, keeps in touch with her son through video calls and wants her Kochi-based techie nephew Kevin to do a background check of Anumol online. The Malayali audience and the large expat community from the state will not find this way of life strange. In fact, the 'Gulf Malayali' is often represented in Malayalam films through phone calls. In the 2018 film Kunju Daivam, for instance, the father/husband of the family is in the Middle East and we don't see him for most of the film. We only know him through the phone conversations that his frustrated wife has with him.
C U Soon also explores the nature of online relationships. How quickly people tend to open up and divulge information and how fast things can escalate. In real life, a man and woman might take ages to break the ice and speak to each other comfortably. But online, in hushed conversations under the sheets, it doesn't take long at all for things to get serious. We also get to see a real life relationship â€” between Kevin and his colleague Sanjana (Amalda Liz Sanjana). They share something of a 'friends with benefits' relationship which is off and on, and gets acrimonious too. But what they have is more tangible than the sweet nothings that Jimmy and Anumol share.
The contrast is evident but there aren't any lengthy dialogues or speechifying to make the point; we are to build a portrait of these people and their dynamics with the blocks that the director sparingly throws towards us.
That Anumol has a secret is obvious, but C U Soon works up the suspense admirably. Does she have devious intentions like Gone Girl, is she out to take revenge on Jimmy for something he did that we don't know of (Jimmy often gets into frivolous relationships), or is she a victim of her circumstances? It takes Sanjana and Kevin only a matter of minutes to unravel the mystery once they smell a rat.
The film takes us through a bewildering array of platforms. WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, digital news media, GMail, Hangouts, Tinder...but none of it feels gimmicky. Perhaps Anumol's videos of herself that reveal the truth may seem too convenient but in this day and age when people document everything through pictures and videos, it may not be far off the mark.
Since the film was made for an OTT (Over-the-Top) release, the makers have worked with the assumption that everyone will understand what's going on, without bothering to include explanatory notes for the technology. There are no flabby, out-of-place lines where the characters tell each other information that they ought to have known already, only for the benefit of the audience. This is a relief and keeps the focus of the film sharp.
Most times, we're watching close-up shots of the three main actors as they react and respond to what they're watching or reading on screen. Again, this looks easy considering we all do it on an everyday basis, but we need to remember that the actors have had to work to make it look natural; that these are not actual conversations but scripted ones. And the effort it must have taken to stitch all the frames together and make a cogent narrative at the edit table.
Sometimes, the camera is placed to offer someone else a view of what's happening (like when Jimmy meets Anumol's 'father' and is on a call with Kevin to assure him that all is well). It's voyeuristic and yet utterly believable, which is what makes the film so compelling.
With the limited resources â€” the entire film was shot in a block of apartments in Kochi with an iPhone â€” C U Soon not only jumps across continents, it even gives us 'outdoor' locations with a classic 'airport' scene you'd find in a romance flick. It's an experimental film, Mahesh and Fahadh have been saying in their interactions with the media, and this one sure looks like an experiment that could lead to many more discoveries as far as storytelling and budgeting are concerned.
Malayalam filmmakers in recent times have been looking to make big budget films with larger-than-life themes. C U Soon, however, is a reminder of what the industry does best â€” solid storytelling about real life and real people, where the script is the hero.