Sunday, July 21, 2013

Maryan: No matter how you spell it, it's an awesome movie.

Before I begin this review, I would like to say to all the distributors out there - this crowd is NOT the right one for the Chennai Express trailer. You could have heard a lungi drop, the audience was that unimpressed.

I went into Maryan with the vague memory of some promo of Dhanush swimming around in the ocean and emerged three hours later with tears still in my eyes. Maryan was not the film I was expecting; it was better. The nature of the film means that I'll be discussing a few general plot points but nothing that should spoil it if you are familiar with the premise.

For those who want to know if they should go see the film, I’ll give it to you straight: Maryan is not fun and lighthearted. The plot is very thin and a lot of time is spent developing characters and relationships and establishing backstory. The second half is brutal and there is violence - real violence, not the masala stuff - and if you’re very sensitive about violence, especially against women, consider this your trigger warning that Maryan is not the film for you.

So keep all of this in mind when I say that Maryan is quite a beautiful film. And when I say “beautiful,” I mean human.

Maryan is the story of Maryan Joseph (Dhanush), a fisherman who lives in a tiny seaside village. His father was killed at sea a few years ago but that hasn’t stopped Maryan from fishing. Maryan doesn’t just love the ocean, it’s truly a part of him. He rides out to deep waters - with his buddies Kuttyundi (Imman Annachi) and Sakkarai (Appukutty) - and dives for fish with his spear.

The one snag in Maryan’s otherwise well-tended fishing net is Panimalar (the lovely Parvathi). Pani is deeply in love with Maryan but Maryan isn’t interested in romance, just fishing. It doesn’t help that Pani’s father is the one who was out on the ocean with Maryan’s father when he died. Meanwhile, Vinayakan (very handsome in real life, by the way) plays village thug and moneylender Theekkurissi, who is in love with Pani. And, worse, holds some of Pani’s drunken father’s debts.

All of this village drama takes up the first half of the film and in the second, our fisherman, our king of the sea, ends up in a figurative and literal desert doing contract work.


I didn’t realize when I began watching the film but it’s based on a true story.

June 6, 2008 (KHARTOUM) — An Indian oil worker escaped from his Sudanese kidnappers and was rescued after three days walking through open scrubland, his employer said on Thursday.

Sudanese rescue teams are using helicopters to search for another Indian man who escaped at the same time. Two more Indians and their Sudanese driver are thought to be still in captivity, said Mohamed Arif Khan, head of Petro Energy Contracting Services.

"We are all very worried, particularly for the second man who escaped," Khan told Reuters. The four Indians and their driver were seized in mid-May between the Neem and Heglig oil fields in South Kordofan, a region that borders Darfur, diplomatic sources said at the time.

Khan said the escaped worker had told him the captors appeared to be disaffected locals.

"They are involved in a local dispute...They are not a political group. They are not an organised group."

Maryan is kidnapped not by band of Sudanese rowdies but by a band of child soldiers - in fact, some of the very same child soldiers from the 2008 film Johnny Mad Dog. They have grown up in the intervening five years and become even more hard.* And Maryan does escape and his journey through the scrublands of Sudan is difficult to watch in the same way all the great survival stories are. Director Bharat Bala doesn’t hold back, either, giving us full-on hallucinations, daydreams, bloodied feet, a man so exhausted he can move forward only by crawling. There’s a moment when he hears a seagull. Is it another fever dream or has he really reached the ocean? The camera pans around...

Ocean and desert.

Is Maryan the same in the ocean as he is in the desert? It’s night. Beaten and bruised and starved, Maryan is watching his Sudanese captors dance around a roaring fire. One of Maryan’s Indian comrades unwittingly gets their attention and the music stops. They want to attack the Indian but Maryan steps in and begs them to stop. But he can only speak in Tamil and they don’t understand him when he says that he is a poor man, too, just like them. And then their leader (Christophe Minie, I think) points a gun at his head and tells him to dance.

Maryan begins to sing. It’s a callback to the opening hero introduction song, pining for the community and the life he left behind - the people who have helped him become who he is and who give him strength.

What has the desert offered the child soldiers?

For his first major film, director Bharat Bala pulls no punches and I was left, once again, feeling that Tamil Nadu is making the best films right now. Not just in India, in the world. Maryan leaves his village to become a laborer in a foreign country. He goes from being his own person to being owned by the company and it takes being beaten to a bloody pulp and working his body to the breaking point before he finds himself again.

Dhanush is a magnificent actor and he uses his body well, diving into the water as naturally as a fish or walking with just enough of a limp to remind us that Maryan had injured his foot. You cannot take your eyes from him when he’s on the screen and, seriously, shame on all those Hindi film critics calling him ugly. It’s a sad day for actors when they all have to look like male models to be considered attractive. As Maryan, Dhanush is beautiful like the ocean is beautiful. And dangerous, too.

I really enjoyed Parvathy as Pani. She’s appeared in a couple of Kannada films opposite Puneet Rajkumar but I hadn’t seen her before. Appukutty and Vinayakan, especially, were also wonderful. Appukutty had a real warmth about him that made you really feel that he and the prickly Maryan were genuine friends. Vinayakan, on the other hand, oozed macho sexuality and the things he does to a pair of sandals... one hundred Poonam Pandey’s could strip and it wouldn’t feel as illicit.

The Sudanese kidnappers were intense. Unfortunately I couldn't really find any names or images to go with the names so I'm not sure who was who. But the leader. He was angry and he was going to take it out on whoever he could reach, even if the Indian workers at the oil plant had more in common with them than not. The real enemies out of sight and hidden in high rise buildings and glass enclosed offices.

And music! While the score isn’t A.R. Rahman’s best, overall it’s quite good - and certainly suits the film approximately one million times better than the abomination backing Lootera. There were a few really nice touches here and there, too. Vinayakan had a discordant theme and, as previously mentioned, the call back to the hero introduction number left me tear stained.

Further thoughts will have to wait for a good night’s sleep and the perusal of other reviews to see what the consensus is but I, for one, am glad I decided to go see it.

* One can’t help but wonder if the actors were channeling their frustrations or dashed expectations left in the wake of Johnny Mad Dog. It’s all fine and dandy for some Westerner to waltz into a country like Libera and use the locals to shoot a film that will get shown at Sundance but what happens to the locals after the crew packs up and leaves? Watching Christophe and Dagbeth, one also can’t help but be reminded of the young Slumdog Millionaire actors and the troubles they have faced.

I want to give real kudos to director Bharat Bala for casting them specifically. It adds a third layer to the undercurrent of exploitation in the second half of the film.

Maybe I should talk about this in a separate post but I did skim a few reviews after writing mine and it looks like people are under the misimpression that the Sudanese teens were "terrorists." I admit to being concerned that we would see merely the "savage" African but Bharat Bala does make a point of including establishing shots of Maryan interacting normally with Sudanese people in his workplace and, again, with Sudanese nurses and fisherman. Any bias and lazy "terrorist" labels are purely on the part of the reviewer.


Sai Prasad said...

Wow. You're review is as honest as the film.

Coming to the film, yes it has the art with commercial make up and the BGM is the best part I feel.


Pecky said...

A great, great review there! I have the exact same sentiments about the film. It was a great watch despite its shortcomings and had the right mix of emotions, music, performances and postcard moments to keep one hooked. "Shame on all those Hindi film critics calling him ugly... As Maryan, Dhanush is beautiful like the ocean is beautiful. And dangerous, too." y favourite bit of this review! :D

Cheers there, I'll keep coming back here of more.

Jess said...

Do Tamil films play with subtitles where you are? I'm having trouble finding subtitled South Indian films in the theater

Mariola said...

It's great and so true what you've write about Dhanush and critics (althought I haven't seen Mariyan yet (unforunately I have to wait for the dvd)
About Parvarti: you can see her in tamil movie Poo too- she was really good there also:)

And as I know from Heather from Chinemachaat Mariyan is subtitled (I watched some subtitled tamil movies in London too. Telugu and malayalam movies aren't subtitled - at least yet)

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