On HELEN, and the art of cinematic subterfuge

Mild Spoiler Alert

Do yourself a favor, do not watch the trailer, or read whatever I have written, before watching the movie; just watch the movie – and then, if interested, read my piece.

Of course, it’s become common in the Malayalam film industry to churn out fine movies by the dozen that are rooted in culture and God’s own country’s various sub-cultures and sub-texts: But what is even more cunning, and so beautifully wily that director Xavier and writers Alfred and Noble pull out a completely different movie than they initially seemed to ‘promise.’ I was taken on a 180-degree ride of joy, feel-good sentiments, middle-class values, chauvinism, misogyny, scare, and thrills all within a span of just about 2 hours. I definitely wouldn’t compare it with ‘Parasite’, though the closest that comes to mind is surely Bong Joon-ho’s snake-and-ladder play of genres.

The devil lies in the details; and in this case, there are wonderful devils running around in the movie apropos the direction, shot-taking, and writing. You realize, only at the end, that when you think on the lines of the ‘slice-of-life’ Malayalam movies, you are in for a narrative like that of ‘Sudani from Nigeria’ or ‘Maheshinte Pratikaram’ when as the initial credits roll, the lyrics – or translation there-of – lead you to believe that this is a song about life and its glorious simplicities and about a father and daughter just making lemonades out of life’s lemons; that a fly getting frozen in a refrigerator ice-tray is nothing but the stagnancy that creeps into our daily mundane existence. You realize that you have been taken for a ride only after approximately the 60-minute show-time.

It’s a story of a father who’s a very responsible but cigarette-addicted senior – and who thinks cigarettes don’t increase blood pressure but blood pleasure— and a far-more responsible yet ambitious nurse Helen [a terrific Anna Ben] who wants to clear the IELTS and go to Canada to become a nurse because the country pays more for the nursing profession and that could help her clear any existing debts for the family. The father, Paul is a genteel [a brilliant Lal], yet a conservative Christian who gets a little jittery that Helen’s best friend has a Muslim name who keeps calling her, but still, feebly, has the temerity to ask if the person is interested in buying a LIC policy from him! As I mentioned before, regarding the writing, it is how a simple shot establishes the so-not cent-percent smoothness of a father-daughter relationship, but the almost near-perfect relationship between the two, of how they have built lives around themselves, and how they have decided to understand each other. It’s a shot not even lasting for 10 seconds, but some distant neighbor goes by on a two-wheeler, and taunts the father regarding the verandah-light always being on, but then also shouts, ‘Hey, your daughter is approaching!’ Immediately, Paul throws away his cigarette butt, but is caught nevertheless. These tender, funny moments are shot superbly and are the results of terrific writing and what one calls ‘observational-humor.’ Paul always shouts out his daughter’s name when dropping off her to the mall where she works at ‘Chicken Hub’, but when he is not happy with her, especially after one night’s incident, he just ‘honks’ sitting on his two-wheeler.

And look at how he gets to meet Azhar [a stereo-typed but genial Noble Babu Thomas]! It’s one of the worst ways a girl could hope to have her boy-friend – that too from a different religion – to have a meet-up with her father! But the way Paul warms up to Azhar is very organically shown; it starts with slaps and ends in a ‘normal’ acceptance. No hysterics; no drama.

It is brilliant how with snippets the makers build the character of Helen and reveal to us her mental strength, her vulnerabilities, and provide a fantastic character-arc as the movie goes along and lays the foundation for the upcoming ordeal. Look at her eyes when her boyfriend is pulled over, when she’s sitting in a police-station, and when, primarily, she is facing a harassing boss. [Again, great writing when it comes to the boss, with regards to where he can show him ‘manliness’ and where he cannot!] She is just waiting to get out of this rigmarole of a job. [Ana’s dialogue delivery is superbly dead-pan when she tells her co-worker that even if she wants to get her boss’s permission to leave 2 minutes early, she has to request him for 30 minutes! What kind of logic is this? But that’s the work-culture we are living in as far as India is concerned and we got to endure; and endures she how!] When a rat destroys 3000-rupee worth of raw-food, and her boss insults her, look at her eyes. Not a single drop of tear but simply a dejected, hopeless look that is more powerful than tears streaming down one’s cheeks; copious or not. Still, her body-language reveals a mental sturdiness that is really difficult to describe. This is simply, a wonderful, wonderful performance, that blends both emotional as well as the physical aspects of acting.

And look at how a rat acts as a metaphor in stitching together the vagaries of life! It is a fantastic thought, and very carefully woven into this beautiful screenplay. And what’s most important and heart-warming is the last scene where the importance of a ‘human’ is recognized by another ‘human’!

You got all these technologies, ‘Find my phone’, ‘Data Dump’, ‘Cell-tower location’ – technologies that can get you anywhere, anyhow, but they cannot, ‘reach’ people. That’s a killer of a climax for a movie.

Not to be missed – at all.

11 Responses to “An Jo On HELEN”

  1. Thank you Munna for publishing this. I am not sure why there’re no paragraph breaks here…Thought had posted it right…


    • I removed some of the WP paragraph tags and I think it looks okay now. Let me know if you need more editing or a different picture.

      Where did you see?


      • It is on AMAZON. Just don’t miss it.


      • It is fine now Munna. This crappy wordpress update is kiling me. It is so painful!

        Need to replace ‘ The details lie in the devil’ with ‘ The devil lies in the details.’ And I think it is in 2 places I refer.

        It is my stupid mistake. I should proof-read before I post!! A bad habit of mine. I write, I post – laziness.

        Also, am not sure why the bolding and italics or underlining aren’t represented. But please don’t worry about it.



  2. I watched this movie twice. I loved it.
    Thanks for writing this superb piece.


  3. ** I should have written it in the review. Munna, if you can add it as the last paragraph, I would be thank-ful. Sorry for the mess-up!**

    And what’s most important and heart-warming is the last scene where the importance of a ‘human’ is recognized by another ‘human’!

    You got all these technologies, ‘Find my phone’, ‘Data Dump’, ‘Cell-tower location’ – technologies that can get you anywhere, anyhow, but they cannot, ‘reach’ people. That’s a killer of a climax for a movie.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’am very glad this movie is mentioned here. One of the best movies I have watched. It was in Netflix too for sometime. All the actors have done great job!!


  5. tonymontana Says:

    This was one of my favourite regional watches in the past two years. The first two halves seem two completely different movies on paper, but they’ve been brought together with a finesse that wouldn’t have seemed possible.

    Loved your observations. Pretty spot on with the details, and I feel the need to check it out again.


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