Ilayaraja Review: A cheerful, well-acted underdog story
It's a textbook example of a motivational film that belongs to the same genus as Slumdog Millionaire and Rocky
The grim expression Guinness Pakru sports on the posters of Ilayaraja may have some wondering if it's a tragic melodrama, but Madhav Ramadasan's new film has oodles of positive energy coursing through its veins. Like the recent Jayaram film Lonappante Mamodeesa, it's a textbook example of a motivational film that belongs to the same genus as Slumdog Millionaire and Rocky.
Director: Madhav Ramadasan
Cast: Guinness Pakru, Harisree Asokan, Gokul Suresh
It is also reminiscent of Bicycle Thieves because of the neorealistic influence it carries and because of the fact that the central character is a destitute father named Vanajan (Pakru), trying to make ends meet with the help of the meagre earnings they get each day by selling peanuts at the Thrissur Round. Aiding him are his two children, a girl and a boy, both schoolgoing. Their mother takes medication for some painful back ailment. This means most of the household chores have to be handled by their grandfather (Harisree Asokan) who is not in the best of health himself.
When an unsympathetic money lender (Anil Nair) comes to collect every single penny that Vanajan owes him and makes things a bit nasty for Vanajan and family, it's not a pleasant sight. But this film is not trying to be another Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum. The family admirably manages to hold on despite the hardships they have to endure every day and move on to the next day as if it's business as usual. But paying the money lender back is not the film's primary conflict because a resolution to that is found midway. It's this resolution that opens the door to a different kind of film: the underdog story.
Ilayaraja is, to put it simply, Rocky with kids. In place of a boxing match, we get a chess game and a spelling bee contest. When the boy secures an admission at a top-tier school, it becomes a different kind of fight -- the fight to survive amongst scores of privileged kids who look down on the underprivileged. Deepak Parambol plays the chess master of the school who sees in the boy a chess prodigy. He is the only sympathetic character in the school, thereby making him the boy's only friend. He says something to the effect of, "You'll be able to get over these awkward situations if you see everything like a chess game."
But then this is not just the story of the boy. Vanajan's daughter has impressive spelling skills. Like the aforementioned chess master, the girl, too, gets a benefactor in the form of a doctor (Gokul Suresh in an extended cameo). For the girl, the spelling bee contest becomes the boxing match. And Madhav throws in an unforeseen challenge that, despite generating a considerable amount of tension, brings forth needlessly overstretched moments that seem slightly artificial at times. But these are minor quibbles that can be easily overlooked considering how Madhav neatly ties up everything in the end. The finale, despite being a little too sweet for my taste, gets the job done.
The film scores particularly well in two departments -- sound and photography. Cinematographer Pappinu and sound designer Ranganath Ravi have put in commendable effort to deliver an immersive experience to viewers who have not seen lifestyles like this up close. Pappinu's camera goes to unexplored corners and captures imagery that one normally sees in a documentary. Every time a train passes by Vanajan's wooden shack, you get a sense of the discomfort brought on by constantly interrupted sleep.
Pakru delivers a suitably restrained performance, conveying only whatever is necessary. There is not a single moment where he goes overboard. For someone who is usually seen in over-the-top comical roles, this film is a major departure for the actor, and it's very refreshing to see. The kids, despite being newcomers, are fairly convincing. If you're going through a low phase right now, give this one a try.