When cinematographer Jibu Jacob forayed into direction with Vellimoonga in 2014, everyone in the Malayalam film industry, including the audience, noticed. It was a triumph at political satire supported by the talented Biju Menon. Two years later, with this family drama, despite being supported by the complete actor, the fact that no one knew about Jacob before that in his 13-year long career gains some substantiation.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in a developing panchayat in Kerala, Ulahannan (Mohanlal) is a middle-aged, burly man who heads the local admin office. He is married to Annie (Meena), a homemaker and equally burly in stature who has gifted him two children, Jini (Aima Sebastian) and Jerry (Sanoop Santhosh). The family collectively lead a smooth life with minimum interactions between each other, but the biggest victim of this lack of interaction seems to be the patriarch of the family. Ulahannan is thus perceived as a reticent, aloof government employee who even keeps his handful of friends at a distance - be it at the workplace or at one of his colony building's terrace where adult men get together by evening to down few ounces and engage in casual banter. However, there is a deeper theme that the film tries to focus on: Ulahanna's distance from his own wife, and how that affects not only their matrimonial life (sex, too, if you are wondering) but also the lives of the remaining family members. M Sindhuraj's story then takes its audience to a lukewarm ride into these characters, their friends, their kin, and some unrelated people. Everything, to convey a point or two about the importance of uncensored love in a family.
At first look, you would think it's similar to Khalid Rahman's 2016 drama, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, but then you chuck that thought off and compare it with Jeethu Joseph's 2013 path-breaking crime drama, Drishyam. Ulahannan's character looks underdeveloped, but his feelings of desolation and melancholy are relevant and viewers may be able to relate with it, especially married people. However, the transition that he makes from being this snobby husband to a starry-eyed toyboy is unnatural. Of course, there are external stimuli to this transition, and the makers may term it as the "instant effect of love", but character development is still a thing in modern cinema. It was like Mohanlal got a cue from the director, and there he goes inverting his gloomy face.
The story essentially tries to explore the complacency of middle-class family life. Ulahannan does not want to make things right, but is rather forced by that external stimuli (thanks to Neha Saxena and Asha Sarath's characters). Cannot be called a flaw per se, but it makes the whole film look like a skit that should have been presented and done with in 20 minutes. In fact, that becomes plain when in the second half, the family hop from one tourist destination to another just to kill time and bore its audience with the ridiculously expanded 160-minute play. In addition to the major theme of family life problems, there is this preachy peach that director Jacob covers the sweet and sour grape-flavored cake with at the end. Nonetheless, this too relates with the primary theme, which goes on to say that if there is a lack of plain-spoken love between the heads of the family, it will affect the foundation of the whole family.
Regardless of everything, the makers have to be lauded for slyly incorporating 51 shades of gray into this genre. Throughout the draggy yet palpable film, writer Sindhuraj shoots these tiny packets of fruity dialogues, innuendos, and references in the form of grapefruit pulp that dissolve in your mouth. Family dramas about husbands and wives have been made in Mollywood before, but these sexual innuendos in one which is directed at the whole family, and which has been received with open hands by the people so far, including those vigilante purists, is a mark of development.
The whole cast perform very well and help in the ripening of the grapes. Central man Lal puts up a good show, reminiscent of his role in Drishyam and Rosshan Andrrews's Evidam Swargamanu (2009), but crosses the line of overacting during that transition period. Meena steals the limelight hands down with her flawless portrayal of a sweet wife. The supporting cast is great, with some appreciable performances by Alencier Lopez, Kalabhavan Shajon, and Srinda Ashab. Sebastian's parents must be influential people, for there can't be any other reason for her to be cast in such an important role. She was a liability both in Manu Kannamthanam's Dooram (2016) and Vineeth Sreenivasan's Jacobinte Swargarajyam (2016). Special pat to Anoop Menon for finally doing a role that suits him - a typical Malayali envious of his neighbors. The makers couldn't have asked more from Ashab as his on-screen wife. A good part of the film explores their problems as Menon's character fools around with women just like Ulahanna DOES NOT with the political samples that sit outside his office ready to grease his hands. From one perspective, the lead cast just look like people in the backseat.
Jacob's characters indulge too much into whatever they are trying to indulge in. The political shade was not really necessary, but then again you cannot tell a Kerala-based story without protesting for the CM to resign, can you? But, there is no escape from the hollow second half which shifts the focus wholly onto Sebastian's character as she tries to read Frost. It is sure that married men and women out there who are in the middle of a mid-life crisis will cower at the end of their seats and envy at this on-screen couple.
BOTTOM LINE: Jibu Jacob's "Munthirivallikal Thalirkumbol" is a breezy, feel-average film directed mainly at middle-aged couples who are experiencing knotted complacency in their matrimonial lives. Wait for DVD and then rent it.
Can be watched with a typical Indian family? YES