In a conversation I had with him this week, writer-director Jeo Baby said that his film The Great Indian Kitchen, which has been making waves across India this fortnight, was rejected by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video without any reason being offered – this is why it is on the currently little-known, new Malayalam-only streaming platform, Neestream.
This immediately brought to mind an unnamed filmmaker who told The Hindu’s Athira M earlier this month that the reason why a bunch of new Malayalam-focused OTT platforms have come up during the pandemic is that “big stars and big banners have become the criteria for some of these (multi-language platforms) to purchase a Malayalam movie”. Such yardsticks for selection will deprive non-Malayalam speakers of the best of Mollywood because they entirely miss the point of the Malayalam New New Wave, which is that it is determinedly not star-driven. For proof, note how Jeo Baby’s Kilometers and Kilometers (K&K) – readied before the pandemic, before The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK) was made – has dropped this week on a platform that turned down the utterly stupendous TGIK. The latter features Nimisha Sajayan, a gifted rising star, and Suraj Venjaramoodu who, till recent years, was known primarily as a character actor. K&K is comparatively flimsy, but in Tovino Thomas (who is also one of the producers) it does have a marquee name attached to it.
Kilometers and Kilometers is written and directed by Jeo Baby. Tovino here plays Josemon, a handyman and motorbike enthusiast in Kottayam who is struggling to pay his family’s bills and loans. It never ceases to be amazing that so many men across the globe fight so hard to preserve patriarchy, a system that, while aiming to subjugate women and retain control of wealth in men’s hands, also ends up burdening men in ways that gender equity would not.
This is Josemon’s life: his mother (Maala Parvathi) manages their home, his sister is a student, he earns money, and the fact that Mom does not step out for employment despite their massive financial struggles is deemed completely normal by all those involved. Though Josemon describes himself in a later conversation as the Daddy figure of the family, the provider, in the mould of Mammootty’s character in the 1990s blockbuster Vatsalyam, the film avoids an all-out glorification of the patriarchal family set-up through an early scene in which the hero tells his sister that he is waiting for her to complete her education and get a job in the US so that she can ease his load.
When Josemon finds himself in a particularly dire situation, hope shines in the form of an American tourist called Catherine Stevens (American actor India Jarvis) who is spending a recent windfall on a global tour. Cathy hires Josemon to take her across India on his Bullet motorbike. A clash of personalities and cultures follows, exacerbated by a language barrier.
The thing about Kilometers and Kilometers is that it is not bad, but it is too insubstantial to be good either.
Among other things, a pan-India road film would be expected to yield a wealth of insights, sights and sounds from the vast landscape it covers, but the script fails to explore India in the way Cathy seems intent on doing. DoP Sinu Sidharth does serve up some exquisite shots of the countryside, but as they cross state borders, few cultural specifics are to be found either visually or in the situations in which the two leads land themselves.
I enjoyed the natural progression of the relationship between Josemon and Cathy, but the fortuitously named India, whose acting is decent enough, does not have the charisma to match the sweetheart that Tovino is. Playing a golden-hearted scamp who can barely speak English and is not above deceiving a trusting fellow human to make some money off them, Tovino rules the film from start to finish and is its primary saving grace.
For K&K to be anything more than that, it needed two actors with a stronger, more urgent chemistry between them, and more depth in its writing. Of course not every film can be as cerebral as Jeo Baby’s most celebrated work, but K&K does not even try much.
Sure, it has some charming little touches. Like the fact that Josemon is a devout Christian but does not bat an eyelid before wearing clothes covered in Hindu iconography (such a pleasure to spot as politicians in the real world try their utmost to divide India along religious lines). Or the irony in her disdain for Indian street food due to the unhygienic practices of those preparing them while she chugs down litres of a cola that true health freaks consider poison. Or the camera panning from a signboard prohibiting the consumption of alcohol on church property to a cross and then to a group of friends boozing around a bonfire, a scene that assumes great significance in an India where the majoritarian mob recently went ballistic over the series based on A Suitable Boy because a couple kissed on screen in a temple premises. (Note: the subtitles here erroneously translate the sign as saying, “this property belongs to the mosque” – I assume the mistake arose because the word “palli” is used in Malayalam for both “church” and “mosque”.)
And then there’s the fact that the script is not condescending towards the foreigner in the story – she is a jerk and a snob who is herself condescending towards Josemon at the start, but he is no saint either, and neither is written in a patronising tone.
That said, a pivotal conversation between Cathy and Josemon about individualism versus family fails to live up to its potential. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that this superficial thread in K&K ultimately quietly plays to the gallery of traditionalist Indian viewers. Thankfully, it does not go the way of Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife (English, Bengali and Japanese, 2010), which romanticised a deeply regressive Indian cultural practice in its denouement. From the man behind The Great Indian Kitchen though, one would expect better than such small mercies.
At one point, when it looks like K&K is headed into problematic Taming of the Shrew territory, Jeo Baby fortunately pulls back before Josemon goes too far. Again, when Sidhartha Siva turns up, the film looks set to get tacky, but his character throws up an amusing surprise. However, a fleeting mention of a false rape charge by one character is further evidence of K&K’s casual superficiality, considering that men – and sadly, women – worldwide tend to malign rape survivors by questioning their integrity.
While listening to a passing conversation between Josemon and his friends (played by Joju George and Basil Joseph) about a possible sexual relationship between Josemon and Cathy, I could not help thinking that this chat is highly sanitised in comparison with the far filthier exchanges that are to be heard in the real Kerala. And I could not help but wonder if this sanitisation was done because to show the reality and yet ensure that Josemon is not repulsive would have required some complex writing.
That’s the thing about Kilometers and Kilometers – Jeo Baby here is clearly not stretching himself to be the best that we now know he can be. At the end of the day, what lingers is Tovino’s darlingness and the attempts at communication between this Malayali with sketchy English skills and an American who knows no Malayalam, that are equal parts hilarious and endearing. To hear Josemon tell Cathy, “Relationship is very very big sambhavam”, kind of compensates for the sneaking feeling that Jeo Baby took a half-day while writing K&K.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
(All images from film’s trailer)
Kilometers and Kilometers is now streaming on Netflix.