Kamal’s biopic on Kamala Das Aami opens with every possible “period film” clichés available in Malayalam cinema. From the stagey frames, costumes, dialogues that sound like they were borrowed from a drama script, amateurish make-up, to actors who look very cognisant about their surroundings. Like this scene where Vallathol Narayana Menon and Changapuzha enter in a vintage car to meet poet Balamani Amma and they break into pleasantries about Chemgapuzha’s Ramanan and you get the impression of being part of a school play. Or Aami’s childhood portions that had this DD docu series texture—the happy child from Kolkata vacationing in Kerala, blossoming trees, the valluvanadan slang-emitting grand mom, the sepia-tinted maids, the joint family, the stiff conversations (especially between the dad, mother, and children). The frames and narrative are even more theatrical when they move to Kolkata—with its narrow lanes, people who look planted, the houses, architecture and tongas,all invoke a sense of being part of a badly lit stage.
Director Kamal places his Aami partly as a documentary and partly as a tele-soap. The film opens with the disclaimer that it’s not adapted from the author’s My Story and is a fictional account of her life and times.
Casting for biopics is always dicey. Especially when you have as the heroine one of the most fascinating and daring writers in India. In a way, Madhavikutty is a performer—her entire life was a big stage and she revelled in it, bringing her own touch of melodrama into it. There was nothing low-profile about her. Strangely, in here, we are already approaching Manju Warrier with a preconceived acceptance (thanks to the pre-marketing buzz). Much before she even says her first line, our mind is already set on her as Kamala Das. That’s why it’s easier to overlook the actor gawkily bundled in saris and excessive make-up (particularly towards the last quarter of her life). Her dialogue delivery is the weakest part of her act—the voice timbre especially goes off-centre as she ages. In one scene, a husband storms into her house with his wife, complaining about Kamala Das being a bad influence and Warrier struggles to convey anger and misgiving. Neither are we convinced when she engages in conversation with her mature sons, as we know there is a very young actor under that heavy make-up. In her aged garb, the prosthetics make it difficult for her to emote.
If there is one thing Kamal has studiously maintained, then it is handling Kamal Das with kid gloves. At no point does he dare to judge her. Be it her thoughts on her sexual relationship with her husband, her hallucinatory lovers, or her love affair with Lord Krishna, it’s done with empathy. Typical of Kamal, the love-making portions were done without a scrap of originality, like a page from a chaste Betty Neels novel. Which seems an irony as Kamala the writer is known for her explicit writings on sexuality. I thought that scenes where her husband hires the help of a sex worker to make his 16-year-old wife more worldly wise was tacky. Ditto for the ones involving the gay partner, besides being a dreadful stereotype.
One of the nicer portions involves Kamala’s relationship with her husband Madhavadas (Murali Gopy). The one scene where she sleeps next to his dead body made me tear up.
There were a lot of one-note sub-characters. Balamani Amma seems like the remnant of a college play with her thick glasses and tepid look (though her aged version was far better). Nor was I impressed with the editor (Renji Panicker) who slyly hints his interest in Kamala. Not only were the foreign actors badly picked, they also had to battle cliched lines. Kamala’s grumpy English teacher and her pen-friend—appalling! The Muslim leaders and purdah-clad women who made a beeline for Suraiya—badly written.
The backgrounder regarding her relationship with Krishna (a charming Tovino Thomas) could have been a bit more intricate.
Kamal, rather than delve deeply into her creative pursuits and accolades, prefers to chronicle it. So, that prime facet of her as a bravura writer and thinker isn’t explored as it should have been. It’s more like a passing hobby. The director also plays it safe when it comes to the politics of the story--the part involving Ali Akbar (Anoop Menon) where he subtly glorifies the Muslim ideologies and later, the conversion controversy and the reactions to it were also stagey.
Murali Gopy fumbles in the older version and, quite honestly, this isn’t a film with memorable performances. Lilting music, enticing frames to a large extent help us overlook the obvious flaws. What saves the biopic is Aami herself. Madhavikutty, the utterly fascinating, alluring, mad genius of a child-woman—when you have ammunition like that to steer the story forward, it’s easier to forgive the weak performances and sloppy making.
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