Gaganachari Movie Review: Unique sci-fi mockumentary with ample laughs

Gaganachari Movie Review: Unique sci-fi mockumentary with ample laughs

Arun Chandu's Gaganachari evokes the humour of yesteryear Malayalam comedies and the texture of minimalist international sci-fi thrillers  
Rating:(4 / 5)

It would've been strange to watch a whacky experimental indie film in a packed hall and then find out that only one or two people were laughing at the jokes. (That happened in the case of something Everything Everywhere All at Once.) But, thankfully, that wasn't the case with Arun Chandu's Gaganachari, unleashed for the pleasure of preview audiences on Sunday at PVR Lulu, Kochi, in association with Kerala Pop Con. It would be disingenuous to suggest that every person who attended it had enjoyed it. But a lot of laughs -- the good kind, of course -- accompanied the screening, which saw a considerably enthusiastic crowd in attendance.  

Director:  Arun Chandu

Cast: Ganesh Kumar, Aju Varghese, Gokul Suresh, Anarkali Marikar

Despite its noticeable popularity outside India, science fiction remains a risky and relatively strange genre with which a majority of filmmakers and producers in the country are reluctant to play around. As with the fantasy or superhero genre, the only way to sell a sci-fi film here is to make it rooted and relatable to Indian audiences. Try to make it look Western -- including the characterisation -- and you create a disconnect. 

However, Arun Chandu and co-writer Siva Sai understood the assignment. They pepper their dystopian mockumentary, which takes place in 2040, with Malayali pop culture references that sometimes might take a while to register. Your enjoyment of it is reliant, to a major extent, on your understanding of some of the old Malayalam classics such as Manichithrathazhu, Kilukkam, and certain B-movies (ahem... ahem), and how they helped the mental health of many a young Malayali man in times of distress.

Gaganachari comes from a team that demonstrates a deep love for cinema and an extensive understanding of sci-fi genre tropes and the mockumentary format. How do you deliver something fresh and unique with a device previously employed in anything from Slacker to The Spinal Tap to Borat? Despite being set many years in the future, with spaceships hovering in the distance, the atmosphere of Gaganachari seems eerily familiar. You immediately recall the texture of a Neill Blomkamp movie (District 9 anyone?), but the images also trigger memories of the 2018 floods, Nipah and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The political climate is an extreme, nightmarish version of our present. Think George Orwell's 1984 with right-wing elements, where cops get their foot in the door because of their Brahmin lineage and moral police are on the prowl at night. In the midst of these, we find the film's three principal characters, Victor (Ganesh Kumar), Allen (Gokul Suresh) and Vaibhav (Aju Varghese) trying to ascertain the intentions of a new arrival (Anarkali Marikar), an alien in human garb (Anarkali Marikkar).

For those who grew up watching 90s Malayalam cinema, Gaganachari feels like being in the company of a like-minded cinephile who shares your love for movies like Ramji Rao Speaking, Mannar Mathai Speaking, Babu Antony and Kunchacko Boban movies. If anyone were to ask me to describe Gaganachari in one line, I would call it 'Ramji Rao meets District 9' primarily owing to the nature of the camaraderie between Victor, Allen and Vaibhav. There is that joke about the last two staying rent-free in Victor's futuristic, yet stifling, apartment.

The latter is to Gaganachari what Innocent was to the Ramji Rao films. Ganesh Kumar isn't portraying the usual scientist/alien hunter stereotype. He looks like a middle-aged guy about to attend his wedding in a sherwani. Complications arise in the trio's dynamic when the single Allen tries to woo the young alien, who later begins to sound like Mallika Sukumaran (an inspired touch). There is that joke about Allen believing that a French kiss is available only in France. There is that joke about changing aspect ratios. There is that joke about a beef alternative, which also sets up a product placement joke. There are many more, but mentioning each would only spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet.

Gaganachari is a film that fits comfortably in this age of artificial intelligence and AI-rendered images. The makers use the limited settings and budget constraints to their advantage, with the competent hands of cinematographer Surjith S Pai, editors Ceejay Achu and Aravind Manmadhan and composer Sankar Sharma chipping in to provide a one-of-a-kind experience. The predominantly 4:3 aspect ratio, I imagine, not only helped significantly reduce art department and effects-related complications but also complemented the palpably oppressive quality generated by the material. 

You also get the sense that retrofitting, especially the lights, came in handy to create a suitably convincing futuristic look with some decent post-production enhancements. Besides, the last-minute involvement of Aavasavyuham director Krishand as executive producer on Gaganachari begins to make sense when you think of the similarities in sensibilities. To put it simply, Gaganchari delivers a damn good time at the movies, especially if you happen to be a sci-fi devotee.

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