Movie starts with a Bible verse from the Book of Jeremiah. Known as the “Weeping Prophet”, Jeremiah was apparently a self-doubting, weak Jew who was also a subject of constant persecution. Of course, things started to look up for the guy when Lord promoted him to the position of a Prophet. In a way Abin’s (Fahad Fazil) plight is identical to that of Jeremiah in that neither has found their purpose in life. In order to get there, Abin must first shed his timid demeanour and be willing to go through a baptism of fire. The film builds up a realistic portrait of violence and self-defence while taking us through the emotions of a man who is forced into an act of self-regeneration.
After having been let go from a lucrative job in an IT company, Abin, on his wife’s insistence, moves to her father’s farm house in Idukki high range. The couple’s plans for a fresh new beginning in this lonely place could have been bought, had they been the artist types seeking creative inspiration in the rustic austerity of the region. But between the two, Abin has to reinvent his career, and Priya, who is seemingly coping well with the news of miscarriage, wants get on with her job. Things go from bad to worse for the couple as a ragtag bunch of deviants led by Joice (Sharaf U Dheen) gang up on them. We even learn later that this place was never quite a source of happiness for Priya as it was blemished by some regrettable adolescent memories.
Varathan has a simple premise. One that may have an all too familiar ring in this age of mob violence and cyber witch hunting. But unlike what the title of the movie may suggest, it’s not a story where the hero is otherized to the point where we start feeling sympathy for him. The dynamic is not one of the Civilized fending off the less Civilized. Essentially, a group of sex-starved village idiots meet Abin, an emasculated cosmopolitan. Knowing that Abin does not pose much of a physical threat, the rogues creep up on Priya.
Fahad pulls off the sophisticated guy with a touch of candour he almost invariably brings to his characters. With his nervous glances and clumsy movements, Fahad deftly plays the guy who looks destined to be pushed around by the physically superior alpha males. His occasional attempts to appear calm and confident betray a fear triggered by the thought of an impending humiliation at their hands. His expression oscillates between shame and resignation as he dreads the prospect of being stripped of his remaining masculinity.
Aishwarya and Fahad make a great couple. The second half of the movie shows her growing increasingly peevish, at the end of rope over Abin’s perceived inability to come to his senses. There’s something insidiously alarming about the manner in which Priya tells Abin to take things easy. Aishwarya deploys an explosive pathos into the character who suffered a miscarriage and is being roughed up by the savages.
After halfway mark, you realize what the couple are actually up against, and start to wonder what the ambiguity created by the music was all about. Clearly the narrative did not have substance complex enough to require such an offbeat but overdone music score. Was it designed to put you off the track? Well, for me, it was used primarily to elevate an otherwise weak plot. The eerie music recurs throughout the first half as if to portend the arrival of something terribly evil. The creepy music bits uncannily resembled those in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” except that latter had for viewers some unsettling revelations on the way. If you need mind-numbing music to make a story appear more gripping, then your story probably sucks.
I felt that the last quarter of the film, with the exception of denouement, was a total mess. Not because I couldn’t believe the characters acting the way they did under the circumstances, but because of the over-the-top stylized shots. They were such killjoy. I mean, I swear I could count from 1 to 10 between the time Fahad smacked a villain in his ribs and the time he landed on the floor. There are people remaining suspended in the air longer than they would inside a spaceship. While Sushin’s catchy hooks lifted the action scenes out of their ordinariness, they were too overdone to warrant a serious thought. I’ve followed Sushin since his early days with The Down Troddens. He’s this immensely gifted multi-instrumentalist who’s soon becoming the new face of a changing Malayalam Film Music scene.
Varathan is heavily inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw dogs” which focused on the mechanism of aggression. In what is an unapologetic Peckinpah fare, “Straw dogs” pits a meek intellectual against a bunch of hillbillies. Peckinpah takes us into the darkest chamber of human soul, showing us its infinite capacity for evil. There are bad characters and those who are worse than bad. But there are no good ones per se. Each character’s ethics is tainted by a warped sense of what constitutes good and evil. Hence, on a closer examination, they are as morally reprehensible and flawed as the next person. In fact, Peckinpah is not even interested in giving characters a chance at redemption.
Amal Neerad’s “Varathan” by contrast has none of these subtleties at stake. It’s a straightforward story about an oddball smart guy confronting his worst fear, and there is epiphany and rebirth. There’s a scene where the scarecrow is set ablaze. It was an understated symbol central to hero’s journey. It was also the highpoint in the movie that could have been so much better. But then if it wasn’t for the superhumanization of the lead character and overdone music, there would be a lot of empty theatres.