Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Faisal Malik, Danish Husain, Kannan Arunachalam, Sidharth Bhardwaj, Lovleen Mishra and Divya Prabha
Director: Mahesh Narayanan
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
Mahesh Narayanan's fourth directorial venture, Ariyippu(Declaration), a Malayalam film with a liberal smattering of Hindi, opens with a video on a mobile phone. The face in the recorded footage - that of a woman employee of a medical gloves factory near Delhi - is hidden behind a surgical mask. Uncovering the identity of this woman is the focal point of a plot centred on a migrant couple placed under severe duress by an unfortunate turn of events.
This prelude to the story points to two facts. The obvious one is that Covid-19 is still raging and parts of the world are still under partial lockdowns. The not so obvious one is what the masks, real and figurative, conceal. Ariyippu, which has an array of characters whose masks disguise the truth that lie buried in their souls, lets the opacities and ambiguities linger until the very end.
Ariyippu, competing for the Suvarna Chakoram at the 27th International Film Festival of Kerala, is now streaming on Netflix. It is a tale of a moral crisis and its consequences on a Malayali couple who work in the medical gloves factory that serves as the film's principal setting.
The man, Hareesh (Kunchacko Boban, who is also a producer of the film along with Shebin Backer and Mahesh Narayanan), does night shifts at Neelam Rubber Factory, where his wife Reshmi (Divyaprabha), too, works. They hope to be in Delhi temporarily. They have applied for visas for jobs abroad. The pandemic intervenes and scuttles their plans.
To make matters worse, an old video surfaces and circulates quickly among the employees of the factory. It puts Hareesh and Reshmi's jobs and marriage on the line. They file a police complaint at the risk of overturning many apple carts, including their own.
Tension and intrigue abound in Ariyippu as a can of worms is opened. The unsuspecting couple tries to wriggle out of the tight spot that they are in. As they dig deeper into the mystery of the video, the more dirt and distress they unearth.
Narayanan builds up the tale one layer at a time, detailing the causes and fallouts of Reshmi and Hareesh's troubles. With their jobs under a cloud, recriminations multiply between the two. Cornered and assailed by confusion, Hareesh resorts to desperate steps only to aggravate matters for himself and his wife.
Neither speaks enough Hindi to be able to make their feelings clear to those that run the factory. Being migrants grappling with a serious language barrier is actually the least of their problems. The mess caused by the emergence of the video is infinitely more irksome. It threatens to stymie their plans for good.
The factory has a couple Malayalam-speaking senior employees, including the avuncular Suresh (Kannan Arunachalam), who double up as their interpreters and sounding boards when the need arises, but so intractable is the problem that it triggers anxiety and impulsive acts.
The masks that people wear not only conceal faces, but also disguise the realities of a workplace where much is amiss. Supervisor Smita (Lovleen Mishra) strives to uncover activities that appear to be at odds with the factory's quality control procedures.
As the story unfolds, Ariyippu brings to light the yawning gap between what is visible and what lies beneath the surface. Informed with disarming simplicity, Narayanan's screenplay is also marked by psychological depth, which aids in sustaining audience interest in the plight of the couple.
Besides extracting unwaveringly solid performances from Kunchacko Boban and Divyaprabha, Narayanan uses actors like Danish Husain, Faisal Malik, Saifudheen and Sidharth Bhardwaj (playing a cop) in impactful supporting roles. Lovleen Mishra fleshes out her part without having to overstretch herself.
The technicians at Narayanan's disposal are all their best in a film that allows them the scope to demonstrate their craft without taking recourse to self-conscious methods. The technical and visual vim and vigour of Narayanan's Take Off, C U Soon and Malik are replaced here with craftsmanship of a less flashy but no less effective kind.
Among the principal technicians is, of course, the director himself performing editing duties with Rahul Radhakrishnan. The cutting gives Ariyippu a sense of pace and a pulsating rhythm even when what is happening on the screen tilts towards the minimalistic.
Cinematographer Sanu John Varughese lights and shoots both the interiors and the external settings with an eye on what is particularly productive in highlighting the morally dodgy, emotionally stifling ambience. The roar of the factory machines, the wails of the factory siren, and other variegated ambient sounds accentuate the visual and aural atmospherics.
Thanks to an approach that rests more on the inconspicuous than on the obtrusive, the backdrop - the badlands of Delhi NCR - is not just a convenient backdrop. It has a germane purpose - showing the audience the core of the shadowy environs that breed sleaze and skulduggery on one hand and despair and agony on the other.
Ariyippu is an understated but telling gem from a director at the top of his game. An absolute must watch.