Trivandrum Lodge

[Cast: Jayasurya, Anoop Menon, Honey Rose, Master Dhananjay, Baby Nayanthara, Thesni Khan, Sukumari, Janardhanan, Jayachandran; Music: Jayachandran (songs), Bijibal (background score); Writer: Anoop Menon; Direction: V K Prakash]

There’s a scene in Trivandrum Lodge: an aged father and a 30-something son, both widowers, reminisce their life over a drink. The father hates his departed wife and calls her a ‘veshi’, a prostitute. ‘No pappa,’ the son replies. ‘Ammai was not a prostitute. She was a male version of a Casanova.’ He is not angry in his retort, but exudes a calm assurance, as if a scholar clarifies a thesis. ‘She had such an intense sexual energy that you couldn’t fulfil it, so she’d had to seek other avenues.’

This scene sums up the mood and the intellectual set up of the film: Post-modernistic, irreverent, self-assured and enlightened. There’s another scene where a girl asks a guy, not her boyfriend, what he likes in her. ‘Kundi’ (ass), pat comes the reply. She doesn’t go ballistic. Rather, she smiles wistfully and says, ‘I wish my ex-husband had that kind of honesty.’

Trivandrum Lodge is full of such bold proclamations that I had to check the DVD jacket to believe that I’m watching a Malayalam, an Indian, film. But then, I’m told that Malayalam cinema has come of age quite a while back and I’m catching the bus late. If that is so, I am going to take a very long bus journey now.

The movie is surprising not just in the dialogue department, but in several others too. The camera quietly stands by your side, without being voyeuristic. There’s clear indication that VK Prakash, the director, has seen and was influenced by South American cinema. There’s short angle immediately followed by the long shot with the characters in a corner. The focus is as much on the background as it is on the character. Music doesn’t blare or suffocate (as it does in many of ‘good’ Tamil films, notably Paradesi). Instead, it is so subtle at places that you don’t notice it: a piano note here, an electronica there; never prominent, never loud. In the hands of a lesser director, this would have turned into a loud melodrama, but Prakash is extremely confident of his material. Skilfully written by Anoop Menon the film’s irreverence is powerfully enlightening. Ravi Shankar, played by Anoop Menon, the writer, is one of the most delightfully realised characters and acts as the ‘interpreter’ of the themes explored in the film.

As a story, Trivandrum Lodge does not have a central conflict. It has a network narrative structure, exploring the lives of a set of people, peeking in and out of their lives and focusing on the instances where each of their lives collides. Each of the characters has their own goal, although some of them are not explicitly stated. Anoop Menon knows his craft very well, so the script doesn’t meander or falter. The only sore thumb was the flashback episode of the Ravi Shankar character which appears a bit clunky, albeit short. Although as a separate story it works well as I did feel a bit of sadness at the passing of his wife, it doesn’t feel part of this intellectually advanced film.

For a film of this nature, with its multitude of characters, it would make the review lengthy to identify and explore each character. There’s this three-dimensional personality Abdu, a porn-addicted guy doing sundry jobs, very well underplayed by Jayasurya and Thesni Khan as Kanyaka Menon, this chatter box sex worker who has some of the best lines in the film. The ‘romance’ angle of the children Arjun and Amala might have felt a bit enforced had it not been portrayed with quiet sensitivity for the children. I particularly enjoyed the scene about Ponds Dream Flower Talc! Watch it and you’ll know.

The review is, however, not complete without mentioning Dwani. Performed by Honey Rose with an insouciant air and reckless confidence, Dwani appears like a central character in this film. While Ravi Shankar is the invisible pivot to the ideas explored, Dwani is the axis around which the story and its characters revolve. She is educated, emancipated, has just filed for divorce and arrives in Kochi. ‘I’m going to experience everything that the marriage has barred. Write books, be promiscuous, experience transient sex,’ she tells her friend. ‘One night stands, etc., you see’. ‘Do whatever you want,’ her friend advises. ‘But don’t tell them you’re a Malayalee. You can be from anywhere else. The moment you tell them you’re a Malayalee, out comes the moral police.’

Dwani is irreverent and experimental. We are not sure her book writing goal is an excuse to do nothing. She does talk frequently about her book and at one point, her scheme to ‘break’ a grieving widower into ‘submission’ also appears as part of this grand plan. ‘Am I a raw material for your book?’ he asks. She smiles meaningfully, but doesn’t deny it. We still don’t believe if she will end up completing the book. We do, however, believe she will end up sleeping with him. I won’t tell you what actually happens.

In a way, Trivandrum Lodge feels unreal. Surely the over the top enlightenment and cultural emancipation of the characters cannot be real, even in the economically, culturally and educationally advanced Kerala? Trivandrum Lodge is, in that sense, a fantasy film, more so expressing the writer’s wistfulness rather than what must be happening on the ground. I was told that the film did very well commercially. That’s comforting to know as an art-lover, but resentful as a neighbour. Damn those Malayalees!

In a loud and crass land like Tamil Nadu where films like ‘Thanga Meengal’, melodramatic fares passing off the psychological inadequacies of the filmmakers, are being paraded as good cinema, the real good cinema seems to be happening quietly in the God’s Own Land. Go seek it.