BIFFes 2019 review: Olu is nuaced, smart fantasy

BIFFes 2019 review: Olu is nuaced, smart fantasy

The poster for Olu.

Film: Olu

Rating: 3.5/5

Direction: Shaji N Karun

Cast: Shane Nigam, Esther Anil, Kani Kusriti

Someone watching Shaji N Karun’s latest Olu, which premiered at the BIFFes 2019, will be struck by how drastically he has changed over the course of his career.

His first film Piravi (1989), still considered by many as his best work, was about a father’s investigation into his son’s custodial death.

Based on the most infamous custodial death in Kerala’s history, that of college student Rajan for speaking out against the Emergency, it was an attack on politicians who were still alive at the time.

Someone watching Shaji’s film in 1989 may have expected him to continue on the fiercely political tract, like his contemporaries Adoor Gopalakrishnan or John Abraham. But the 2000s have brought a different spin to Shaji’s films.

Starting with Kutty Srank, he has been very fascinated with presenting realism in a very different way. His dialogues with social reality began to mediated by elements of fantasy.

His latest film Olu sees his most extensive use of fantasy to date.

It tells the story of Vasu, (Shane) who is untalented painter, eking out a living through a Hanuman temple his family has inherited. This is not a family to whom the belief in the netherworld is a matter of contention. Their everyday lives are shaped by the traditions they have inherited.

Vasu seems be to passive spectator to these supernatural transactions, unlike his grandmother, who is a sorceress, and his sister (Kani), whose mental balance has slipped after having too many troubles transferred to herself from many possessed and cursed people who visit the grandmother.

Both these parental figures warn Vasu against the eponymous “Her” or Olu (Esther). But where’s the story if he doesn’t do just that?

In his nightly rides on a small boat through the moonlight, he hears Her. And although he does not see Her, they fall in love.

She is a victim of rape who was saved from death by the supernatural nature of what resides in the backwaters, but forever became a part of that world. He reminds her of someone she knew once.

Never at any point does Shaji give into the cliches of the fantasy genre, and despite the eerie nature of the story, he never manufactures any scene for just thrills.

After they fall in love, she gifts him the ability to paint like a genius - a gift that he taints with his lust and greed.

Olu is a fable with multiple layers of history going into it. The supernatural force in the backwaters also becomes a background for a conflict between Hindu and Buddhist faiths.

All this gives you enough material to keep thinking about well after you are done with the movie.

The disappointments of the film are the acting, the dialogues  and the characterisation. A script that has paid so much attention to the nuances has skimmed over keeping the characters relatable.

Most of them are always seen spouting heavy words, often without conviction or flavour, and it is terribly hard to empathise with any of them. The brilliance of Olu’s premise is dimmed when Shaji uses characters as props that move the story ahead or simply to expound ideas.