If Churuli had a map, it’d be spiral-shaped, you imagine, a maze where you keep coming back to the same paths. There is a story that the people of Churuli like to recount to new visitors. A Namboothiri (dominant caste Malayali) had once gone in search of a perumadan – a phantom – that was leading everyone astray. Unknown to the Namboothiri, the perumadan was in a basket on his head, misleading him to take the wrong routes over and over again. Churuli, the newest film from Lijo Jose Pellissery, begins with this tale, setting the ground for the longer one ahead – of two policemen going in search of a slippery criminal. The film was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).
It’s going to be a bit dark and quite mysterious, you gauge from your experience of watching Lijo Jose movies of the past and from the captivating voice of the woman who tells the Namboothiri’s tale. Lijo doesn’t disappoint with the darkness or the mystery. The film has its fun moments, humour, and of course doses of fantasy and scary scenes. While you don’t feel lost through all of it, you just might end up with no answers at all.
In the beginning, there are the brief moments of calm when the woman’s voice fades and two very ordinary policemen begin a bus journey under assumed names – Antony and Shajivan (a pause here for the woman referred to this name) – to catch a criminal who’s been giving the police the slip forever.
Their conversation is soothing but you know they are soon going to enter dangerous terrains. Churuli is a jeep ride away and in the middle of that ride, through rickety roadless paths, you are introduced to the strangeness of Churuli’s people. The driver who takes Antony and Shajivan – played by the excellent Chemban Vinod and Vinay Forrt – and the other men accompanying them is all very polite, smiling and awfully quiet during the first half of the ride. But when they cross a particularly difficult bridge, everyone’s manner changes – a slew of expletives is on everyone’s lips, they become roguish, demeaning and overly brash.
The charms of Churuli begin with the jeep ride through the woods (cinematography by Madhu Neelakandan) but they fade into the background as you are distracted by the people – settlers from another part who have adopted the strange ways of the land. They have a language of their own to switch to when the expletives in Malayalam do not seem to be enough.
Antony and Shajivan pretend to be labourers who came to work in Thankan Chettan’s rubber plantation. But Thankan Chettan is away and the two are put up at the toddy shop run by a middle-aged man with a foul mouth (played by the gifted Jaffer Idukki).
Watch: Churuli trailer
While it’s interesting to note the strange ways of Churuli’s men and women, it’s more puzzling to watch the change in behaviour in the policemen. Antony, the senior among the two, had warned Shajivan not to call him ‘sir’ when others were present. But he still likes to assert his authority when he feels Shajivan forgets he is the subordinate. Antony also reveals his wild side, getting excited to go hunting and taste the meat of forest animals (the night shots are charming). He seems to forget the purpose of their visit as Shajivan tries to make inquiries, only to invite more curse words from everyone around.
But Shajivan’s character is more interestingly written. He seems to hold many mysteries within the paavam policeman exterior. After a day in Churuli, he says it seems like they have been there for many days. He begins to speak the language of the people when he turns emotional. He loses his senses while simply looking at a wall or closing his eyes for a moment (delightful sound design by Renganaath Ravee). You don’t know if it is the magic of the place that makes men bare their flaws.
It is a world that can feel like another time – phones don’t work, there are no gadgets, not even a television is shown. People make merry with their toddy and their foul language. You never get used to the ways of Churuli’s men and women, till you realise they are just displaying on the exterior what others hide within. It’s of course exaggerated beyond a point, and there are some tasteless lines (‘who is there who haven’t raped or killed at least in their mind’) written in. What else is disappointing is the lack of prominence women usually get in Lijo’s movies. There are two women characters here – wife of the toddy shop owner who can tell off rude men – and the woman who provides medical treatment to people with ailments (Geethi Sangeetha). The latter’s voice is noticeable – it is the one you heard in the beginning of the film narrating the Namboothiri’s tale. But though impressive the women seem negligible in the few scenes they are present.
Other noteworthy characters keep flashing by – Surjith, Joju George, Lukman – all beautifully assuming different crude characters of Churuli.
The film has its charm, the magical element is endearing but appears juvenile after a certain point. While it is up to the viewer to decide what to take home, it would appear the focus is lost somewhere between exposing the hypocrisy of the civilised and conjuring a world to escape into.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.