Antony Varghese, with his shaggy mane and smouldering eyes, looks like a messiah descended on earth to lead those who believe in him to the light. So, it’s apt that he plays the lead in Swathanthyram Ardarathriyil, a jailbreak film where he’s an accused in a murder case.
Set mostly within the confines of a prison, and narrower still within the setting of Cell No. 6, Tinu Pappachan’s slow burn thriller never gets monotonous. The characters cannot speak much. They’re under the (mostly) watchful eyes of the cops. Their plans have to be made in whispers, gestures, expressions and even newspaper cuttings. The need for secrecy is a constant and the actors – all of them – succeed in drawing the audience to that edgy reality.
As a story, Swathanthyram does not have much depth. It is not, for instance, like Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, where there are so many layers to every character, including the cops. Jacob (Antony Varghese) is single-minded in his purpose and the storytelling is devoid of distractions. As he makes his moves on a chessboard he does not have full control over, the upsets and triumphs are what make up the plot. Can he pull it off? Till the last moment, we don’t know the answer. And when the realisation dawns upon us at the end of a superbly shot sequence, the audacity of it takes our breath away.
Vinayakan (who was received with cheers usually reserved for a hero by the audience) and Chemban Vinod Jose, who play Jacob’s co-conspirators, are in their elements, shifting between black comedy and sheer desperation.
Girish Gangadharan’s cinematography deserves special mention – there’s so much detailing in the frames that needs to be communicated to the audience without the use of dialogues. In many films, for instance, you can close your eyes for a good part and still understand most of the story. Do that in Swathanthyram and you won’t understand head or tail of it. Like that scene in which Jacob wordlessly pours a mug of water over the Bengali migrant, as if performing abhishekam to a god. It is unexpectedly poignant and speaks so much without needing anyone to open their mouths.
The stunt sequences are choreographed well, too. These are not present to merely showcase the hero’s machismo. Each of it takes the film further towards the conclusion. The background score ably builds up the suspense in the film without trying to manipulate us into judgments about what we’re watching. I did feel, though, that the film went a bit overboard with the rain and slow motion, even within the stylised framework. And I wish the writing had been better in the flashback portions. The whole thing looked hurried and is not as impactful as the rest of the film somehow.
Aswathy Manohar doesn’t have much to do in the film. None of the women characters do. That’s understandable, considering where the film is set for the most part. However, the actor makes an impression despite her short screen time. Seeing Lijo Jose Pelissery, who directed Antony Varghese in Angamaly Diaries (in one scene, someone hums the enjoyable Chayakadakara song from the film when the prison inmates are being served tea), along with the actor on screen puts a smile on your face.
Swathanthyram Ardarathriyil is yet another memorable film for Antony Varghese. If the actor continues making such intelligent choices, he will go far indeed.