This movie does not have astronomical budgets, breakthrough marketing or special computer graphics. But the good news is, it does not need any of that. This is a stand-in for everything Malayalam cinema is good at.
This is how I began the review for Kumbalangi Nights; As Anna Ben lands her second movie, this is something I would like to reiterate. While Kumbalangi Nights was an easy to go tale of youngsters, here Mathukutty Xavier creates a gripping tale of life and survival inspired from a real life experience.
Helen is an ordinary girl from a middle class family. Her only family is her father who she is very close to. She has passed a nursing course and wishes to work abroad so she can clear the debt on the house. Instead of taking a nursing job, she attends IELTS coaching exams and manages a part time job at a restaurant inside a mall. One day, she accidentally gets trapped in the deep freezer at work and the following events tell the story of grit and fight to survival.
Anna Ben and veteran actor Lal lead the laurels here. Both of them share a fun and easy camaradie in the first half and their relationship on-screen is plain adorable.
Into the second half, Lal plays a father who has lost his daughter and his words and looks always carries this weight of emotion whether he is sad or angry. Anna as she is trapped inside a freezer spends the entire second half not saying a single word but emoting everything perfectly. She plays a huge part in making the story believable and touching. Had the audience not empathised with her, the 2 hour run time would have been unbearable with the time spent in one single location.
The second half also sees another actor in full form — Aju Vargheese. He plays a police officer in the movie and would definitely be characterised as the villain in this movie if it had one. It is a shade different from the characters he has played before and I felt the hate pouring in for the character so he has played it believably. This does paint his upcoming film Kamala in a new light.
The script and direction in the first half is a master class on delivering exposition. While we are fed all the information we need for the cinema through dialogues of people talking to each other, but it does feel forced at all. We are taken through this journey of Anna’s life and we can see each information feeding on the one before and as it gets to the second half you realise each of those was there for a reason.
We get to know what Helen’s lover Azar if like before we even see him on screen. We know that Helen’s dad does not want her to leave to Canada before he says it himself. While the manager at the restaurant is always rude to his employees, we are told in a later sequence that he himself is facing issues at home. His wife is putting him at disadvantage and he is trying to assert his power on his employees just so that feels powerful. All this and more through just dialogues and still it felt natural.
In the second half, Mathukutty and team tells us how to treat a cinematic experience when the characters in it do not have any character arcs. None of the characters in the story show any significant growth in the story, but the screenplay nevertheless keeps the story engaging. The secret to this I believe is making Helen a proactive character. She could well have been a passive viewer descending into shock the moment she was trapped. But instead, we get someone who tries every trick in the book to stay alive and hence produces an engaging thriller even while things outside are lukewarm. The person trapped inside a room without a single dialogue is the protagonist of this story and this is a choice I respect 🙌
Even when the movie gets preachy, it still manages to be natural and the messages conveyed just feels like something that character would say at the moment. Just what is required, no more, no less.
Cinematography and Soundtrack
There are no expansive landspaces to capture in Helen. But still the camera keeps the first half of the movie fluid and quick all the while feeling natural. It does not look like anyone is performing for the camera in the first half and that by itself can be an achievement. In the second half, the camera achieves the pace and cuts that the movie requires. When focusing on Helen herself, the camera is slow and captures the claustrophobic atmosphere pretty well.
Shaan Rahman has some great tracks and background music and it never gets in the way 👏 With his friend and producer Vineeth Sreenivasan, he produces a hit with Pon Thaarame syncing in well with the movie atmosphere. Kaanaa Theeram is also a treat 🎼.
At the end, three different sections of people arrive at the same conclusion. The police receive the last tower location pin pointing that Helen is somewhere around the mall area. The watchman tells Helen’s father that she has not left the mall. This is now more specific than the last. Azar gets to know from her friends that she might be trapped inside the freezer. This the very highly specific information. Now, it is true that the audience is already aware of this information in the first place, but still as an investigative piece I hoped this information was fed in the right order. It feels like the ending would have felt a bit more satisfactory if it had been a proper information channel.
PS: I have been to some of those late night shows at PVR Lulu where there are few people in attendance, the A/C is so amped up that I would literally shiver. I’m grateful that Helen was houseful. That 4D experience would have sucked.