The news that actor Nazriya will make a return to cinema with Anjali Menon's next film has created quite a flutter. The last time the two of them worked together was in the 2014 blockbuster Bangalore Days.
Memories of the film, which had an ensemble cast of the Malayalam industry's most promising stars, are still fresh in the audience's mind.
Bangalore Days was that rare urban Malayalam film which was authentic in dialogue and characterisation. It didn't fall into the trap of pretentiousness in trying to represent life in a metropolis. Instead, the film made the city its heart and soul and gave us real characters with believable histories.
It was also one of the few films to make platonic relationships its core - with a popular heroine like Nazriya playing cousin to Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly, both of them actors she has romanced in earlier films.
As the film's opening credits roll, Anjali Menon gives us cleverly photoshopped images from the actors' real life childhood to create a sense of shared space and memories.
Kunju, Kuttan, Aju
The risk with making a film with an ensemble cast is that some characters will remain underdeveloped. The triumph of Bangalore Days lies in how beautifully it gives each character an arc to follow through. Although Aju (Dulquer Salmaan) comes closest to the conventional hero, with his bike stunts, quick temper and attitude towards life, the other characters are given equal importance in the script.
If the audience was swayed by the aggressive Giri of Ohm Shanti Oshaana which released a few months before Bangalore Days, they were in for a surprise with the oily-haired Kuttan. Uncomfortable with women, Nivin Pauly's character in the film is the typical naadan young man who is judgmental about "modern" life without really thinking about his own hypocrisies.
Anjali Menon delightfully uses the character of "cute Kuttan" to take potshots at age-old moral aphorisms like "Whether the leaf falls on the thorn or the thorn falls on the leaf, it is the leaf which gets damaged."
As the film progresses, Kuttan's ideas about what he really wants from life don't change. He's still an old fashioned, awkward guy. However, he does evolve towards a better understanding of life and the people around him. From dating an airhostess who hilariously fits his "dreamgirl" description of a beautiful woman offering him food on a tray during the pennukaanal, Kuttan ends up marrying a foreigner.
But it's Kunju's story that we don't often see on screen. Nazriya is among the very few women actors who can pull off innocence and vulnerability without the character becoming annoyingly childish. As a 20-year-old who is married off in a hurry to a sullen and withdrawn man (Fahadh Faasil), her transformation from an eager to please wife to a hurt, angry, and resisting woman in an unhappy marriage is striking.
The bond between the cousins is captured in many moments. Perhaps the best among these is the one when Kunju is sitting next to the groom at the wedding and exhales deeply - only for a puff of cigarette smoke to come out of her. She'd been smoking Aju's cigarette just minutes ago in an effort to calm her nerves!
Love and some more
The other characters who come into the lives of these three people are also constructed with depth. If you've seen Fahadh Faasil's easy, genial smile in other films, you'd know how good an actor he is when you watch Bangalore Days. His face constricted, serious and stiff, Das looks every bit an iceberg.
However, even though he comes across as a borderline abusive spouse, the script keeps giving us clues to his sensitive nature - a man who is aware that he is causing immense hurt to his wife but is unable to get over his own grief.
Fahadh's expressive eyes fill up with wonderment as Kunju's stained glass butterflies light up the living room. Later, as they make love, his eyes fill up with tears - a mix of gratitude, relief, and something deeper than lust. The tattoo on his back, which Kunju traces with surprise, is representative of the man he actually is, beneath his cold veneer.
The love that develops slowly between them is never spelt out in lengthy dialogues. Instead, we find out about it through gestures like Das filling up the fridge with Kunju's favourite mango juice.
Parvathy, as RJ Sarah, is another interesting character. Even though we don't see her until we're well into the film, she's just as important to the story as the others. Confident yet not without her insecurities, Sarah's romance with Aju is full of little, warm moments. When he becomes uncomfortable at her birthday party and wants to leave, she holds his hand, simply saying, "Don't go!" When he comes to her house and asks her to go for a drive with him, she immediately takes off the hairpin holding one side of her hair up and fluffs it to make sure that she looks good for him. Her wheelchair isn't one that's turned into an object of sympathy - Aju even takes a speed ride in it in the park, wearing his helmet!
Isha Talwar's Meenakshi, the airhostess, is perhaps the only one who is written as a shallow person who uses Kuttan to get back at her ex-boyfriend. However, their story helps Kuttan understand that his ideas about a "perfect woman" could go very wrong.
Although Nithya Menen appears only for a few minutes in the film as Shiva's (Fahadh's full name in the film is Shivadas) girlfriend, she has a real presence all through the narrative. Natasha's death comes as a shock precisely because of how much life we see in Nithya Menen's eyes and her exuberant laughter.
Kalpana, as Kuttan's mother, brought the house down with her portrayal of a middle-aged woman wanting to embrace modernity. When Kuttan's father leaves the house without telling anyone, Kalpana's face is a picture of tragedy.
However, we realise that actually, she sees the event as an opportunity to escape the drudgery of small town life. When she enters Kuttan's home in Bangalore, she looks at his stove and asks if he doesn't have the "other" one. "Oh, there's no firewood stove here, mother," Kuttan says. "I meant an induction stove," says his mother. From Bangalore, she hops to the US, happy to explore the world in her "James Bond" jacket.
Even Chinamma, the domestic worker who has seen Das growing up and can't stand Kunju, is spot on in characterisation. The way she gossips with Das's mother about Kunju's ineptness and calls Fahadh "Das paapa" are hilarious to say the least.
Bangalore Days packs in many surprises in the plot. For instance, conditioned as we are to see onscreen parents obsessing about their daughter's need to get married and stay married, it's refreshing to watch Sarah's mother (Rekha) wanting her daughter to not settle for anything less than the best. Even though Sarah is in a wheelchair.
Kunju's parents, too, would rather their daughter get a divorce than stay on in an unhappy marriage. And it's not only the young who chase their dreams. The scene when Kuttan reads his father's letter in two different tones - one heavy and philosophical, the other light and adventurous - to understand what the latter is really saying is one such example. While Aju's parents went through an acerbic divorce, Kuttan's parents are happy to live separately, exploring their own lives minus the drama.
Small moments take on larger significance in the film as it progresses. When Das comes to meet Kunju for the first time, he makes friends with her dog. It's when she sees him petting the dog that Kunju seems to make up her mind that this man, who'd just told her that he was in a serious relationship previously, could be husband material after all. Later in the film, we see the dog that Shiva (Das) and Natasha had owned rushing towards him, when he goes to meet Natasha's parents (Prathap Pothen and Vinaya Prasad) on Kunju's insistence.
The film also had a great background score and catchy songs (Gopi Sundar), capturing the energy of its lively characters and their stories.
Bangalore Days won three Kerala State Awards and remains a favourite with fans of cinema, within Kerala and outside. It's therefore not surprising at all that Nazriya's return to cinema in Anjali Menon's next has generated such high expectations. The film also has Prithviraj and Parvathy in the cast. We have no idea what it's going to be about but one thing's for sure - when the dish is uncovered, it won't be empty like Kuttan's mother's carefully covered kitchen vessels.