Saturday, 3 November 2012

From behind a half-closed door

Truth as seen and heard from outside a room may not be the same as that from inside the half-closed door. The recently-released Malayalam movie Ayalum njanum thammil (between him and me) builds on this truth.

We have heard of similar stories many times over. A doctor in a corporate hospital is accused of medical negligence because a patient under his care dies. There is protest outside the hospital. The media – especially the television channels – are there in full strength. Each journalist has his own version of the story.

In Kerala with a strong socialist background, the incident takes another overtone. It brings back the oft-repeated themes of neglect of the rich for the poor and the insistence of corporate hospitals to make money above everything else.

Like Ustad Hotel that was released earlier this year, Ayalum is a story of emotional bonding between two males, of two generations. The younger one grows from a boy to a man in the process of this bonding. The hospital where the young and the old doctors meet in the hills of Munnar is appropriately called Redemption Hospital. The stone walls of the hospital redeems the two men.

Unlike in Ustad Hotel, the director does not lose his grip of the narrative. No scene is felt to be extra.

Ravi Tharakan is an ordinary medical student. So ordinary that he takes seven years to complete a five-year medical course. Forced into doing two years of rural service in the hills of Munnar, he meets Dr Samuel. Life and the senior doctor make a man out of Tharakan.

“It is not difficult to diagnose or to treat,” mentors Samuel. “It is difficult to take a decision on what is to be done.” Ayalum is about a tough decision that Tharakan had to take later.

Where does the personal become professional? Can a doctor refuse to treat someone because of personal animosities? Can a doctor’s professional judgement on the need for surgery override the wishes of close family members of the patient? Can a doctor lie to protect his colleague? Ayalum raises many questions.

Maybe these questions are as old as time and will continue for generations to come. Ayalum manages to tease out a credible story from these questions.

Actually, the promotional stills for Ayalum do not tell the truth. They call the movie a romantic story. The young characters appear on the posters. The central character – Dr Samuel – is hidden behind these promotional pictures. Maybe the elderly Pratap Pothen is not as glamorous as Prithviraj (who plays Ravi Tharakan) and his contemporaries Narain, Samvrutha Sunil, Remya Nambisan and Rima Kallingal. But Pothen plays the keystone character that gives meaning to the movie.

Pothen’s character elevates the movie from a run-of-the-mill campus romance to one dealing with the deeper philosophical questions of life. Pothen handles the character deftly, giving it space, depth and understanding. His guidance to Prithviraj’s character is not just professional, but also personal. He sees a certain strength in the young doctor which he nurtures. He overrules the wishes of a mother who does not want her son to go through a simple surgery.

There is something about Prithviraj. He evolves easily from the prank-loving, romantic medical student to a responsible, conscientious doctor. As the bearded and greying Ravi Tharakan appearing in the beginning of the movie, he gives his character a presence.

What Ayalum fails is in doing justice to the women characters. Four women play critical roles in the movie – Samvrutha the lover, Remya the doctor at Redemption, Sukumari the matron-nurse and Rima the personal assistant to the corporate hospital’s chairman. Each one has done her part well. But none of them have a long screen presence in the movie.

The songs in the movie do not interrupt the narrative and the visual sequencing is without much jumps. The mountain mist of Munnar adds visual beauty, though this is not the first Malayalam movie to have used the mountains as a location.

And that exactly is the movie’s strength. Without the pretence of setting out to do something different it touches the viewer in a very non-deliberate manner. The viewer comes out neither elated nor sad after the movie, but entertained and introspective.

Metaphorically, Ayalum takes the viewer from outside to inside. In the beginning of the movie the viewer is kept outside the half-closed door of a surgeon’s consulting room. At the end the viewer knows what happened within the room. In the two hours between this early and late shots, the viewer enters into the doings and undoings of the medical profession through the lives of doctors Ravi Tharakan and Samuel. The viewer comes in.

Ayalum is a simple story; nothing that you or I are not aware of. The beauty is in how director Lal Jose tells the story along with the scriptwriter, cinematographer and the editor to ensure that the movie does not lose steam in the process of the viewer coming into the surgeon’s consulting room.

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