Neru Movie Review: Sensitive, insightful legal drama with an unwavering focus

Neru Movie Review: Sensitive, insightful legal drama with an unwavering focus

Jeethu Joseph ensures that Mohanlal's presence doesn't take the limelight away from serious issues 
Rating:(3.5 / 5)

It doesn't take much effort to coax Mohanlal's Vijaymohan -- a disillusioned, downbeat, and weary advocate -- to dust off his gown. The case happens to be a serious one -- the rape of a blind sculptor, Sara (Anaswara Rajan). But she is a fighter willing to put herself through excruciating court procedures to seek justice. Vijaymohan's motivation for stepping back into the courtroom is her determination. "I may fail, but I don't want her to," he says. Now, it's not easy to have the survivor and her victory a priority in a film led by a superstar, and yet, director Jeethu Joseph, with co-writer and actor Santhi Mayadevi, endeavours to make a legal drama of unwavering focus and succeeds. They ensure that Mohanlal's presence doesn't take the limelight away from Answara and the issues addressed.

Director: Jeethu Joseph

Cast: Mohanlal, Anaswara Rajan, Siddique, Jagadish, Santhi Mayadevi

Jeethu has marketed Neru as an 'emotional courtroom drama' to downplay the high expectations set by his previous films. It is indeed emotional, but the predominant emotions are those associated with a suspense drama. Given the nature of the crime, a significant amount of discomfort and trigger warnings would naturally accompany it; thankfully, the makers steer clear of needlessly graphic depiction. The approach is minimal enough to give us a sense of the gravity of the situation without veering into deeply upsetting territory. The film is clear about whose side it is on, who we are supposed to cheer for, and who we are supposed to loathe. As I said earlier, its focus on its core remains undiluted throughout. It's only fitting when you consider how a woman's presence of mind in a moment of extreme peril becomes a crucial talking point in one of the film's most pivotal moments.

Neru is essentially the flip side of Drishyam. The Drishyam films generated suspense from a man's attempts to evade capture after a crime. Neru, too, does the same, but with one difference. This time, we want the suspect to get maximum punishment. But how is that possible when he happens to be the son of an affluent businessman who has paid for the services of the most cunning and formidable defence lawyer, Rajashekar (Siddique)? What chances do Vijaymohan, who has stayed away from the courtroom for a long time, have against him?

Neru has a screenplay filled to the brim with details, so many that I found myself unable to keep track of all of them at some point. There's no moment to think of logical flaws because it relentlessly feeds us data after data and jumps immediately from one scene to another in the most economical fashion. In this age of dwindling attention spans, it understands that wasting time on pleasantries wouldn't be a good idea. It aims to cut to the chase. There is no attempt to give Vijaymohan a long, sad backstory to gain our sympathy, as in something like Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (a superb character study and courtroom drama). Despite his past failures and lack of self-confidence, Vijaymohan doesn't overdose on self-pity. He isn't tormented by a past tragedy or seeks refuge in the bottle as did another Jeethu Joseph protagonist, Sam Alex (from "Memories"). He is still active; he is working from home. A slo-mo intro or a rousing background score doesn't accompany his return to the courtroom. Moments before it, he tells his assistant he will take an Uber instead of the big fancy vehicle he just brought him.

That's not to say the film completely deprives Vijaymohan of 'heroic' moments. After all, this is Mohanlal we are talking about -- in a Jeethu Joseph film! But, again, it adopts a suitably restrained and balanced stand in terms of dividing the limelight. Aside from Mohanlal, who plays Vijaymohan as someone who is desperate for victory and takes a while to regain his mojo, it's Anaswara (in a remarkably affecting performance) and Siddique (at his sleaziest, manipulative best) that keep the film going even when there are undeniable instances of momentary energy lapses.

I say this because Neru occasionally suffers from the same problem that ailed previous Jeethu Joseph films (even the best ones): a weak supporting cast coupled with the intrusion of 90s Malayalam filmmaking sensibilities. For example, when the dialogue delivery of a senior supporting cast member who plays the suspect's rich dad registers a comical effect in one of the film's most serious junctures, it's jarring. The same goes for the suspect and his buddies acting like villains from 80s and 90s Malayalam cinema in a few instances. (This issue was most notable in Jeethu's last film, Kooman.)

I also found my attention affected in places where the information is fed to us most blandly. The experience is akin to sitting in a classroom listening to a boring lecture. Here, the theatricality of the performances, over-reliance on legal jargon, and a few attempts at exposition also play spoilsport. Besides, a possible attempt to emulate a real-life courtroom occurrence -- someone repeatedly asked to look at the judge while answering questions -- gets infuriating because the dialogues are viciously interrupted multiple times. If this were an attempt to maintain a sense of realism, why did the makers not apply it to the performances of the supporting cast members instead?

But since Neru has many good ideas, principally complicated backstories that have a bearing on the case in question, you tend to give its shortcomings a pass. Moreover, the makers deserve appreciation for using cinema as an opportunity to touch on various intricacies of the legal system while requesting people to exercise more sensitivity. It asks you to place yourself in the shoes of the less privileged and have a broader understanding of what transpires in some cases instead of having a narrow, generalised view. My favourite scene -- and this is not a spoiler -- comes at the end. When a reporter dares to raise his camera when everyone else has lowered theirs in respect, he is immediately discouraged. Powerful ending, that.

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