'Varthamanam' review: Parvathy, Roshan are great in this important film

Though the film falls prey to amateur making, it tells important issues, very relevant for the times we live in.
Still from Varthamanam
Still from Varthamanam
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Faiza Sufiya is not your outraging rebel, not the first to jump the gun. But when she takes a stand, it’s honest, and her words have a remarkable clarity about them. Faiza is a person you’d love to know closer, as you watch her in the newly released movie Varthamanam. With a north-Kerala slang, lose salwar-kurthis and hijab, Parvathy Thiruvothu transforms admirably into Faiza.   

Writer and Congress politician Aryadan Shoukath, known for calling out regressive systems within the community in his stories, has written the story of a young researcher stepping into a Delhi campus in the current political situation. It appears to be a fictionalised version of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which has been seeing unrest in the past several years, with arrests and branding of student activists as anti-national.  

On Faiza’s first day in the campus, there is a protest march led by the union chairman Amal (Roshan Mathew), demanding to release the stipend of a Dalit activist, targetted by right wingers. Faiza soon makes friends with a few among them – Amal, Thulsa – her roommate, and others. She understands the issues and lends her support for the cause. She comes from a Congress background, and is the granddaughter of a freedom fighter. Amal stands for leftist politics but this doesn’t shake Faiza’s political leaning. Sanju Sivram who plays the Congress student leader of the campus speaks about the need for all anti-fascist groups to come together in this hour.

Faiza listens to all of them with interest but appears to want no trouble and stays away from the limelight unless she’s pushed. Siddique who plays her guide Poduval, asks her to take the stage once. Her research is on Mohammed Abdur Rahiman, freedom fighter and scholar from Kerala.

After her speech, she is cornered by a gang of men and women, right wing leaders of the campus, warning her to just stick to her studies.  They had taken offence with her talk. Softly but sternly Faiza says, “But I only spoke the truth.”

That’s the first you see that side of hers, a woman with convictions and not afraid to express them. Gradually she gets more pulled into the issues. You see her transform from the silent supporter to the one giving voice to their issues. When she has to make a speech at a protest march, Faiza hesitates at first, and can’t initially find the words, overcome by emotion. The same emotion then raises her voice and heartfelt defiant slogans come out of her. You watch the growth of a leader, a fighter sticking to her sense of justice.

She is also very clear about her faith and her politics and careful not to mix the two. When a student unit of a Muslim party approaches her with support, Faiza gently but firmly refuses it. They advise her against her choice of friends – people from other religions and parties. For Faiza, a strong believer of Islam, it doesn’t matter what the faith of her friends are, they are good people, she tells them.

The friends are a motley gang among themselves, all focused on the cause they fight for. Amal is your typical natural leader, the first to fight against injustice, raising the loudest slogan. For all the loud sloganeering and anger Roshan shows, he could very well be mistaken for an actual JNU student leader being shot for the film. Dain Davis plays the inevitable comedian in the gang, always too hungry. His and the character of Faiza’s uncle (Nirmal Palazhi) – both intended for humour – are however mostly clichéd and out of place.

Even as the issues are very real and it takes a daring team to bring it out, the film often falls prey to amateur making. Siddhartha Siva, an actor known for his ability to take independent realistic films, has somehow slipped in allowing preachy dialogues and artificial exchanges between the characters. The unnecessary background music at several parts also doesn’t help to tone down the drama.

Despite these shortcomings, this is a film that should reach the people. It paints a picture of the disturbing realities we have been hearing about the past few years. Seeing it played out in front of you rather like the uncomfortable drama that the students in the film plan to do, Varthamanam does not let you look away.

Grounded in reality as it is, the film had faced trouble with the regional office of the Censor Board of Film Certification. But the revising committee of the Delhi Central Censor Board cleared the film later.

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.

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