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Chattambi Movie Review: An unconventional, brooding mystery that doubles as an origin story- Cinema express

Chattambi Movie Review: An unconventional, brooding mystery that doubles as an origin story

The shifting power dynamics in Chattambi recall the films of KG George, most notably Irakal, and its recent inspiration, Joji

Published: 26th September 2022

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a female colleague about some of the powerful matriarchal figures in influential Christian families in Kerala. Being from one such family herself, she shared fascinating anecdotes about how these women wielded the same measure of power as the men in their families. It got me thinking about their 'origin' stories. Were they always like that? Or did they go through a major transition phase after, say, the death of their husbands? Or do they take over after their men get struck by a debilitating illness or injury? Do they inherit these qualities from their parents?

Director: Abhilash S Kumar

Cast: Sreenath Bhasi, Grace Antony, Chemban Vinod Jose, Guru Somasundaram

In a key scene from Chattambi, a young woman (a splendid Grace Antony) is in a quiet discussion with her mother, lamenting about her lack of freedom in a house run by her husband (Chemban Vinod Jose). It's not a retread of Simmy-Shammy from Kumbalangi Nights, mind you. The latter, who always sends other men to do his bidding, reveals himself more vulnerable as the film slowly inches toward its third act. There is a suggestion of him not being immune to the transgressions to which many men of his ilk are usually prone. The gist is that men get to do anything, while the women stay home, with only secondary priority. And then, her mother shares a story about her realising one day that her husband is not exactly a saint. So what did she do? Say a long, special prayer that could turn the tide in her favour. Her wish came true, and she got her husband where she wanted. She suggests her daughter do the same thing. Now, this conversation might seem insignificant and unnecessary to those who get easily bored, but this scene tells you everything you need to know about the rest of the film. If you're patient enough to sit till the climax, this scene will begin to make more sense.

So what's Sreenath Bhasi doing in this, you might ask? Is the Chattambi in the title referring to his character Kariya? Yes and no. It's about the 'chattambi' streak in all of us. I found it interesting that the film opens with -- and this is not a spoiler -- the death of Kariya. It's a bold narrative choice that evokes Hollywood classics such as Sunset Boulevard or Citizen Kane. It's also interesting that Chattambi proceeds, very briefly, to do a Citizen Kane-style background check on Kariya. This approach almost makes you believe that the entire film is about him. It's not. He is an integral character in that his existence, actions and death merely become an opportunity for another character to rise. I see Chattambi as the 'origin' story of the young woman played by Grace Antony.

I mentioned earlier the conversation she had with her mother. There are many such long closed-door conversations in Chattambi. It's replete with them, and there is a chance that many can find this approach off-putting. Even my endurance got tested in a couple of places, but they weren't too bothersome. Men, women and colleagues engage in these conversations -- inside their house or outside -- over drinks, lunch, breakfast or dinner. Some may dismiss these elaborate, strangely edited stretches as pretentious and ponderous, but I wouldn't throw such adjectives because I'm not unfamiliar with such narrative choices. I find them acceptable.

The occasional fragmentation of images is quite similar to that found in the films associated with the French New Wave or even the Hollywood New Wave products of the 70s. Sam Peckinpah's films are supreme examples of this. Take his 1972 film, The Getaway, for example. You would find moments from two separate periods -- months or days apart -- spliced concurrently with the ongoing scene -- as it examines the events from six months before Kariya's murder and seeks answers as to who killed him and why. But the police aren't too keen because they know him too well. To put it simply, he is not fun at parties.

It's funny how Chattambi, a film currently reeling from the after-effects of its leading man Sreenath Bhasi's uncouth, recalcitrant behaviour with an online media personality, for which he just got arrested, has the actor playing a character who is not too different. A wiry, dishevelled man, Kariya is often unpredictable and prone to sudden outbursts. Something has been bothering him for a while, and one of the men responsible is Chemban Vinod Jose, whose loyalty to his man Fridays only bears as much weight as his fidelity to his significant other.

The shifting power dynamics in Chattambi recall the films of KG George, most notably Irakal, and its recent inspiration, Joji. The same goes for the staging of camaraderie between the men, which reminded me of G Aravindan's Chidambaram. Remember that exterior drinking scene with Bharat Gopy, Nedumudi Venu and Innocent? There is a similar moment in Chattambi, too. But I also remembered the Shakespeare-inspired films of Vishal Bhardwaj because Chattambi also features characters speaking in hushed tones, sporting calculating faces, and making discreet moves, the implications of which become apparent only later.

This understated quality can also be found in writer-cinematographer Alex Joseph's frames, with characters either illuminated by available (day)light or a single bulb, which adds to the grimness. Mythili plays an object of affection for one of the male characters; admirably, the character isn't willing to be confined to just that: she has enough agency to pick the man with whom she should share her bed. The immensely gifted Guru Somasundaram shows up briefly in a pivotal role that makes a strong impression just minutes before the curtains come down.

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