2018 Movie Review: Stunningly staged, powerfully evocative ode to the resilient spirit
Jude Anthany Joseph's survival thriller benefits from a skillfully constructed screenplay that respects all its characters irrespective of screen time
Recently, during a casual conversation with an actor, we reflected on how some folks in Kerala, no matter what they have against each other, will come together when the state experiences a grave crisis. And when I mentioned that they might return to their old ways once all the chaos dies down, he reminded me that even if that happens, we can always rely on the hope that they'll reunite if disaster strikes again.
Director: Jude Anthany Joseph
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Asif Ali, Kunchacko Boban, Tanvi Ram, Lal, Narein, Indrans
Jude Anthany Joseph's 2018 -- based on the devastating Kerala floods that occurred in the same year -- celebrates this hope. It's a film rich with layers and information. Take the plot thread involving a Tamilian truck driver, Sethupathi (Kalaiyarasan), harbouring a prejudice against Malayalis, set against the backdrop of the Mullaperiyar dam issue and water scarcity. He is not the only one. The most compelling threads, for me, are the ones involving Tovino Thomas (as an ex-army man) and Tanvi Ram (as a teacher and his bride-to-be), Asif Ali (as a struggling model) and Lal (his father), and Vineeth Sreenivasan (an expatriate going through a divorce).
Given the presence of the massive cast, much care has gone into moulding the screenplay in a way that respects all its characters. Its ability to make a particular character endearing within a short time is commendable. All these characters are connected in some way. If they aren't, the connection will eventually happen. And nowhere do you feel one character is more important than the other. Even if someone has a short screen time, it doesn't undermine their utility. Though largely linear, the screenplay occasionally goes back and forth, but the coherent construction ensures zero confusion.
And having big names occupy some of these 'heroic' characters doesn't necessarily mean all of their arcs culminate in a happy ending. In that regard, 2018 doesn't tread the predictable route. "Everyone is a hero," says the film's tagline. Indeed, but the film doesn't treat anyone as a superhero. But Jude doesn't forget to give us uplifting moments too. There is a neat balance between the upbeat and downbeat moments. The theatre erupted in applause when the fishermen, the real heroes of this story, gathered all their boats to gear up for rescue operations. One can say the same for a scene of two brothers-in-arms acknowledging each other with a salute. Sometimes relief comes from the most unexpected corners. Sometimes it's the most unlikely individual who, at one point, was deemed worthless that astonishes you.
2018 is not only the finest multi-starrer but also the finest disaster thriller to come out of Kerala since Virus (2019) and the most engaging hyperlink film from the state since 2011's Traffic. There is a great sense of urgency, most essential for a disaster-centric movie, especially one based on true events. I came to Kochi in 2018, and I vividly remember the anxiety in the air -- my contribution included -- when the floods reared their ugly heads in the middle of that year. We heard scary stories that we badly hoped didn't happen to us. There was the constant fear of waking up the next day and finding out that your house was half submerged underwater. And if you were living in a rented house, there was the irrational fear of your house owner leaving town to prioritise their own safety without informing their tenants.
So when you see a film that throws at you images of helpless parents with a disabled child struggling to survive or a blind man left abandoned, all in the thick of the night while water levels around them are rapidly increasing, how can you not feel a shiver run up your spine? At a time when even the most privileged were pondering their fates, can you imagine yourself in the shoes of the underprivileged? 2018 explores this class divide at a crucial point when a patriarch, played by Joy Mathew, who earlier dismissed a family of fishermen, is eventually forced to shift to the very place he looked down on because he has no other option. "So what if you have to stay at a camp? There's unity and laughter to be found there," says Nileen Sandra's character in one scene.
It goes without saying the film benefits from having a stellar cast that includes the who's who from contemporary Malayalam cinema, such as Tovino Thomas, Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, and Vineeth Sreenivasan, in addition to notable appearances from Narein, Tanvi Ram, Lal, Kalaiyarasan, and Indrans. The performances veer slightly towards the cinematic, with some situations resorting to amped-up melodrama to convey tremendous peril, like the one involving Sudheesh and Gilu Joseph. Personally, I would've preferred a more subtle, tone-down approach, but this has always been a characteristic of Jude's films, which always targeted a wider audience.
Had he opted for the Virus (the Aashiq Abu film) treatment, I suspect it might alienate a section of audiences for whom the evening teleserial is an unavoidable pastime -- the ones who like a bit of loudness in their movies. Actually, I wouldn't frame this quality as a complaint because how can we say with complete certainty that someone would react in such situations in a certain way? 2018 shows us at least two circumstances characterised by heightened melodrama. Maybe we would've reacted the same way if we had experienced the same. How sure are we of not going beyond our breaking point? It could happen.
Cinematographer Akhil George, whose work in Kala impressed me greatly, demonstrates, once again, his supreme photographic skills. With dolly zooms, god's eye views, and the occasional handheld approach, he makes us feel the immense scale and doom-laden atmosphere, all enhanced by convincing practical and digital effects. (Kudos to the technicians behind these stunning results.) We also get some striking juxtaposition of images, like cutting to an ad shoot with artificial rain immediately after showing a Tamil Nadu village dealing with an acute water crisis. In another example, the image of a little girl watching a cartoon house getting flooded with water is matched with the visual of real people gathering elsewhere to see the opening of a dam. Both sides hope to see a spectacle, but the context is different.
The film also reminds us not to ignore our four-legged friends. Even a brief flash of a pet dog's face is enough to show that these poor creatures, too, are hoping to be rescued. While on rescue, genuine feelings of peril accompany these sequences, injected with the necessary suspense and dread. One nail-biting night rescue involves a pregnant woman (Vinitha Koshy) and her daughter.
This week, there are two major Malayalam releases; strangely enough, it's the one that doesn't deserve any attention that arrived with much fanfare for all the wrong reasons. But when you have another film that propagates unity and compassion and salutes the unforeseen resilience of individuals when planted in the most trying of circumstances, why would one think of watching something that peddles hate and propaganda? Pick wisely.