Varathan movie review: Shoot the peeping tom!

Varathan movie review: Shoot the peeping tom!

A still from Varathan.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

Film: Varathan

Language: Malayalam (UA)

Director: Amal Neerad

Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Aishwarya Lekshmi

Early on in Varathan, Abi (Fahadh) asks Priya (Aishwarya), "What is the Malayalam word for 'nostalgia'?" "Grihaturatvam," she replies. Abi may not know the Malayalam word for it — he looks like he spent his life mostly outside Kerala — but even he gets the feeling.

Malayalam cinema, and maybe Malayalis in general, have a thing for nostalgia. The cinema of the 80s, the life in villages, the first crush in school are all things Malayalam cinema has romanticised for ages.

Varathan is Amal Neerad reading all of these against the grain: what is the underbelly of nostalgia, he asks. He gives you the answer, too: it's hypocrisy.

A couple — intelligent, polite, modern — come to the wife's ancestral home. The house, a British relic filled with eerie gadgets from bygone, now becomes the centre of the village's attention.

We know by the rule of Chekhov's Gun that the gizmos are going to be used later in the film, but even that doesn't prepare you to the extents to which Neerad will go.

Priya is good-looking, so the gaze of the entire village falls on her. The village talks of her as an object of lust and, therefore, of her husband, the "varathan" or outsider, as an unmanly wimp.

You'll notice that there are very few women characters, not because Neerad is obsessed with masculinity but because he wants to show how toxic it can get. And the toxicity swings like a pendulum between moral policing and the male gaze.

Malayalam cinema has for decades made comedy out of men sneaking a peak at women bathing. The films thought that was funny and the peeping toms were laughed at and quickly forgiven. Varathan, retelling the trope from a woman's point of view, shows how that was always a tale told by men, for men.

Varathan may remind some of Neerad's earlier film Iyyobinte Pusthakam (2014) for its rustic setting and a British house. While not as ambitious, Varathan hits you harder. The earlier film's ambition had led to excesses, whereas Varathan is a disciplinarian's film when it comes to direction, camera, script and acting.

Even smaller characters are fleshed out and well-acted, while Aishwarya does what most co-actors struggle to: match up to Fahadh.

Varathan is obviously a must-watch. A film of this brilliance doesn't get made very often, even by someone like Amal Neerad.

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