In Malayalam director Blessy’s films, the men are impassioned and fractured

‘Aadujeevitham’, the adaptation of Benyamin’s novel slated to be Blessy’s magnum opus, will be a crucial release for the director, as his craft will be clashing with that of a fresh generation of filmmakers.
In Malayalam director Blessy’s films, the men are impassioned and fractured
In Malayalam director Blessy’s films, the men are impassioned and fractured
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In the early 2000s, Malayalam cinema was struggling through a phase of mediocrity. The new wave was still far away, the old guard of K Madhu, Sibi Malayil, Kamal, Shaji Kailas, et al appeared to be showing signs of decline, and save for a few middling superstar films, the rest were destined for obscurity. In the middle of this creative bankruptcy arrived a small, beautiful film — centred around a young immigrant boy who finds his way into the heart of a local film projectionist in central Kerala. Kaazhcha (2004) had come as a relief for an industry that was on the cusp of a great new change. Coincidentally, its creator was a protégé of an array of filmmakers who had pioneered the golden age of Malayalam cinema. 

Blessy had been a long-time associate of filmmakers such as Padmarajan, AK Lohithadas, and Jayaraj, and his debut too was vastly inspired by the tapestry of celluloid characters created by his mentors. He seemed predominantly taken with Lohithadas, his penchant for the complexities of the human mind, the nuances he gave to gendered relationships, and the fundamental pathos layered in his narratives. The obsession with human frailties, the impassioned and fractured men, the mostly traditional and patriarchy-aligning women, and an apparent apathy towards the lighter/comic moments of life, are all common factors in the films of both the mentor and the mentee. Another commonality between them is their abhorrence for ‘superstardom’, and a preference for the ‘actor’ in the superstar.

Debut and after…

Blessy, a perennially shy filmmaker who also claims to be a poor storyteller, is said to have approached Mammootty with trepidation to pitch his first story as a director. Though he had previously worked with the superstar as an associate, he was wary of his infamous temper. When he met the actor on the location of Sethurama Iyer CBI (2004), the producer who accompanied Blessy had offered to narrate the story. Mammootty, however, insisted that Blessy do it. 

“As if he was aware of my nervousness, he took me aside, made me comfortable, and then heard the story,” the filmmaker recalls in a later interview. 

When Blessy said he would ask Lohithadas or Sreenivasan to write the script, it was Mammootty who nudged him to write the script — “Just write it the way you narrated it to me.” That’s how the writer-director clinched his debut film, Kaazhcha.

From Kaazhcha to Kalimannu

In hindsight, his debut has remained his finest to date. The lucidness with which Blessy portrays the emotional disruptions in Kaazhcha keeps us immersed, despite the film’s overwhelming subtexts. When villager Madhavan (Mammootty) who is screening films on the beach stumbles upon a grubby, hungry Gujarati boy (Yash Gawli), his heart doesn’t immediately brim over with kindness. Their strange attachment grows steadily and nonchalantly, leading us to that inevitable moment when Madhavan takes him home. The communication is solely between hearts, compassion is the language that glues them. And astonishingly, even with all the cynicism clouding our judgment, we are prepared to absorb their bond.

Soon it became evident that pathos was the cornerstone of his narratives. If Kaazhcha’s climax seemed like Blessy had a macabre sense of justice, in Thanmathra (2005), through the narrative of an Alzheimer’s patient and his family, he took us into a newer abyss of emotional distress. As government employee Rameshan Nair (Mohanlal) slips into Alzheimer’s, we are as devastated as his family. His decline is well-documented, crushing your spirit as intended, and by the time reality sinks in, we are sort of rationally prepared. Having said that, more than Rameshan’s state, we are more shaken up by his family’s helplessness. Though tethered to melodrama, both seasoned (Nedumudi Venu, Jagathy Sreekumar) as well as the fresh cast of good actors effectively convey their anguish.

With Palunku (2006), the chinks in his armour were showing. As always, the narrative starts unfussily, framing a cosy traditional family headlined by naive villager Monichan (Mammootty), his wife, and two little girls. All is well in their universe until he is lured by the city lights, leading to a dreadful closure. All the emotional sequences are dramatically staged to trigger instant pity (and maybe a fear in the audience that it could happen to them). And this time, he misses out on subtlety. Monichan’s guttural cry, though ensured to move guaranteed weepers, doesn’t linger once the credits roll.  

Bhramaram (2009) is essentially a diluted version of Sibi Malayail’s Kireedam (1989), minus the crushing intensity. You have a man (Mohanlal) constantly at odds with his fate as he lands in jail for a crime he never committed. If that wasn’t enough punishment, life throws him into even more piteous situations, snatching every ounce of happiness from him. So what redeems this sadistic, unmoving narrative to an extent? Mohanlal’s earnestness. 

At this point, it seemed as if Blessy was searching for stories to emotionally manipulate the audience. Some of the casting choices were also odd. The characters played by Suresh Menon in Bhramaram and Anupam Kher in Pranayam could have assembled so much more depth if he tried any other actors from Malayalam.

In Calcutta News (2008), Blessy shifts focus to the city of Kolkata and a relevant issue. It has a young woman who gets entangled in a human trafficking racket and finds herself drawn towards the journalist who rescues her. At the core of this underrated work is a sublime romance that’s beautifully and coincidentally linked to the larger issue. Despite the many holes in the narrative (the depiction of television journalism lacked nuance and also reeked of artificiality), the stark and realistic portrayal of the flesh trade in the dark alleys of Kolkata  — with a startlingly disturbing climactic stretch — can be the reason why it failed to bring in the box office numbers. Blessy brings a naïve, orphaned Krishna Priya (Meera Jasmine) who marries a pimp and narrowly escapes a human trafficking racket, to evoke the horrors of this still rampant trade. That he employs a subtle, non-preachy tone to narrate the otherwise bleak subject is refreshing. Notably, this was also the time he started neglecting the sub-characters in his story.

And then he came up with one of the most memorable love stories in Malayalam cinema, Pranayam. Blessy being Blessy, features an ageing couple to narrate this piece of sublimity. The film is also about the beauty of second chances, between a woman who has been disillusioned in love, and a man who has been cruelly let down by fate but never wallows in self-pity. Grace (Jayaprada) and Mathews (Mohanlal) have woven a romance for ages, routing every skeptic’s theory on love and companionship. And then we have an unlikely friendship between Mathews and Grace’s former husband (Anupam Kher), that’s doused in compassion, forgiveness, and honesty. If there is one thing Blessy brings unflinchingly into his narratives, it is the depth and intimacy in man-woman relationships. From casual banter and enduring companionships to their undiminishing carnal compatibility, the married couples in Blessy’s world are tender and sanguine.  

In fact, that is also the only redeeming image in his weakest work yet, Kalimannu (2013). The gentle, passionate romance between Meera (Shwetha Menon) and Shyam (Biju Menon), however, still isn’t enough to help us tide over the banal narrative. 

In Kalimannu, Meera, who previously worked as a bar dancer and Bollywood ‘item girl’, is finally making her debut as a heroine, when her husband Shyam who is a taxi driver meets with an accident and is declared brain dead. From there emerges a woman’s desire to have a baby through artificial insemination. The film was in the news for filming Shwetha’s real-life delivery live. Almost everything about Kalimannu was tacky, including the screenplay (worsened by a preachy climactic stretch), the execution, and characterisations. Largely set in Mumbai, the staging is worsened by clichéd representations and shallow dialogues.  

The men and women in Blessy’s world

Similar to Lohithadas’ characters, Blessy’s men were mostly victims of circumstances, more naïve than flawed. Lohi developed characters that resonated with the audience, while Blessy’s men made you cry automatically as he incorporated time-honoured elements of tragedy (parent-child sacrifice, death, disease) into the narrative. Kaazhcha’s Madhavan and Palunku’s Monichan are men with similar traits (kind, naïve, compassionate) forked in different milieus, while Thanmatra’s Rameshan is a perfect father, son, husband, and worker. He is a motivational speaker, gets moist-eyed when he savours a dish cooked by his late mother, is ambitious, cherishes and desires his partner, and is his son’s role model. There is a beautiful father-son bond at the film’s centre, which deepens when he has Alzheimer’s. 

Bhramaram’s Sivankutty, on the other hand, is desperate to hold back all that he has lost, for no fault of his. It’s this desperation that drives him into periods of insanity, propelling him to be someone he isn’t. 

Hands down, Blessy’s most fascinating character has to be Pranayam’s Mathews, who is a picture of positivity, fun, and compassion, despite being in a wheelchair. Calcutta News’s Ajith Thomas is his most cheerful, relaxed hero — he isn’t beset with troubles, and even if he is, he might not make a heavy weather out of it.

It is also crucial to point out the abundant space Blessy provides his leading men to flex their craft. Save for Monichan’s (Mammootty) hamming, the rest were all productive. Bhramaram and Thanmathra had lengthy sequences, replete with close-up shots to capture Mohanlal’s in-depth craft. Having said that, Mohanlal’s post-Alzheimer’s phase in Thanmathra seemed to lack nuance, his reactions becoming more caricaturish.

Blessy’s women, meanwhile, have learned to happily negotiate with patriarchy. Their lives are always entwined with men, children, and domesticity. The rare ones who have careers (or some agency) are projected in modern clothes and kept away from relationships (Vimala Raman and friends in Calcutta News). Lakshmy (Kaazhcha), Lekha (Thanmathra), and Latha (Bhramaram) are devoted, unambitious, and maternal women pitched in different settings. We are also foreseeing a similar template to Krishna Priya (Calcutta News) once she settles into domesticity with Ajith. Maybe Grace has a more wholesome arc, as she has bravely stepped out of a marriage and is prepared to give love another chance. She is gracious enough to forgive and accept her ex-husband, even as she gives her all to Mathews.

Aadujeevitham, the adaptation of Benyamin’s novel slated to be Blessy’s magnum opus, took nearly five years to complete, due to reasons that were not entirely within the control of the crew. For Blessy, this will be a crucial release, as his craft will be clashing with that of a fresh generation of filmmakers. These are challenging times for any filmmaker in Malayalam, where cinema, ideas, technology, and audiences are constantly evolving. There is an audience who will ruthlessly discard outdated content with the same enthusiasm with which they will embrace avant-garde themes. Blessy’s biggest test dose yet!

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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