In the age of snappy IPL matches, if you still have the patience to follow test cricket and wait for rewarding moments, Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu will appeal to you. At about 2 hours 40 minutes, Pramad Ranjan's third directorial venture might seem like a stretch, especially since nothing much happens in terms of plot. There are two villains thrown into the story for the heck of it but the film isn't interested in exploring such conflicts beyond adding them to the script to complete the tapestry of life in a sleepy village.
At the heart of the film is Baiju (Biju Menon), an unambitious government employee who spends his time playing cricket in the village ground and mentoring the young people around him. His life revolves around the legacy of 'Kumbalam Brothers' , the village's local cricket team. While his contemporaries move on in life, setting up companies in the US and becoming highly paid professionals in the UK, Baiju is happy where he is, hitting an occasional sixer and going to watch a Thala Ajith film at 4 am.
Much like the Tamil film Chennai 600028 and its sequel which looked at male bonding and camaraderie through sports, Rakshadhikari also gives us characters who grow up on the ground and come of age even as they are dismissed as indulging in just "play". The ground becomes the place where people fall in love, heal their broken hearts, make confessions, indulge in some drama, and even watch a Sunny Leone clip together. It's what connects all the characters, their lives, disappointments, and joys.
Biju Menon is charming and completely convincing as the happy-go-lucky middle aged man who manages a complaining yet loving wife (Hannah Reji), an exasperated daughter, his parents who need financial help, and the sundry problems of his large friend circle. Though he's mostly projected as someone who is always cheerful, he too has his sorrows and Biju effectively portrays these emotions with the subtlety that the script demands.
The film's strength lies in how effectively it characterizes the people of Kumbalam. Aju Varghese plays an insecure man who's convinced he must marry a very beautiful woman, rejecting the advances of a dark-skinned girl. She, however, only laughs at his foolishness and continues to express her attraction towards him openly. Then there's another friend, Baiju's lackey, who is a bit slow and severely protective of Baiju who has helped him become as "normal" as he could.There's Janardhanan, who plays an old man whose mission in life is to disrupt the activities in the playground. The female characters are at the fringes in what is essentially a masculine world but the little character sketches we get are convincing enough.
It's not easy to develop so many characters, keep track of their story arcs and make a meaningful narrative out of it but yet, that's precisely what Pramod Ranjan delivers. However, one wishes that the director had not forced a "message" out of the film towards the end. It would have come through anyway for viewers who have followed the developments in Kumbalam for a good length of time.
As is the case in many recent Malayalam films, Rakshadhikari also has Tamil characters and a Tamil song to boot. Bijibal's music is pleasing to the ears and the background score, too, complements the narrative without dripping into unnecessary sentimentalism.
Prasanth Raveendran's camera captures the beautifully green village and the emotions of its residents with flair. The pacing of the film is bound to make some restless but, the director seems to say, this is what Kumbalam is like. It's slow, nothing much happens, and yet life can be a pleasant experience if only you'll give it a chance.