The first half of Amal Neerad's Varathan had me gripping the sides of my seat, as a sickening dread enveloped my heart. I suspect that most women in the audience will have a similar response to it. As many have pointed out, Varathan bears several similarities to the psychological thriller Straw Dogs. While it isn't entirely a rip-off, I was left thinking how sad it is that a 1971 film set in the Cornish countryside still feels relevant in the year 2018 in a state that's relatively better off when it comes to gender equality in the country.
Varathan opens in Dubai, with Abi (Fahadh) losing his job and Priya (Aishwarya Lekshmi) losing her pregnancy. Right away, Abi and Priya look and feel very much like a real couple. The glances they throw at each other, their conversations, and gestures, their romance that's told through a song set in the past, immediately make us like them and want to protect them from what's to come.
The film slowly builds the creeps as Abi and Priya land in India and decide to move into her home in a lonely place called Mile 18. The leering eyes of the men follow her from the start - from the cab driver who adjusts his rear-view mirror to see her, to the men in the tea shop who stare shamelessly. Abi, as most men are, is oblivious to these stares even as Priya is distinctly uncomfortable. He fails to notice her changing body language, her shifting moods and expressions.
Aishwarya Lekshmi proved herself in Mayaanadhi and she does it once more in Varathan, playing a woman who is vulnerable yet strong within. She has in her a rare quality to emote without getting hysterical, bring innocence to her face without infantilising herself. Fahadh, as the warm yet clueless Abi, is excellent as he always is in any film. There's a scene when Priya kills a cockroach while Abi tells her that she should have let it go. The two of them are so much at ease with each other that it feels like such a natural conversation - it's only later that you realise why the moment was placed where it was.
Everything in Varathan has made it to the screen for a reason, including the teen romance that Preman (Chethan Jayalal who was last seen with Fahadh in Carbon) has with a girl. Sharaf U Dheen is surprisingly effective as a violent and abusive Joice, as is Kochu Preman as a leery old man. The script brings out the hypocrisy of men like them who violate women's space and body without a second thought but indulge in moral policing others simultaneously.
However, the second half feels like a squandered opportunity, considering how well the first half was set up. Abi's transformation seems sudden and quite unbelievable. I kept waiting for an explanation for the change but it never came (I wondered, like one of the characters does, if he had had some kind of nefarious job in Dubai). The plot could have also had a more convincing reason for why Priya finds herself in a difficult spot. Abi leaving her alone right after a traumatic experience seems downright foolish and unreal.
Though there are quite a few slow-motion shots in the first half (well, it's an Amal Neerad film), you buy them because they add to the suspense. In the second half, however, it's all to showcase Abi's masculinity to thumping background music by Sushin Shyam. The fear that the first half had inspired in us quickly dissolves in all the indulgent stylization. Little Swayamp's camera adds atmosphere to the film, which is shot mostly within a large house. You notice just how unsafe it is, despite locked doors and closed windows.
Varathan begins with a Biblical quote about the need to protect one's family from others. That's what the title refers to - the outsider. I only wish Amal Neerad had allowed Abi and Priya (why didn't she get to do more in the second half?) to fight the outsiders like the ordinary human beings that the first half had promised us.
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.