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Saturday, September 30, 2023

LIFF 2021 Review: A’hr (Kayattam)

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s next film, A’hr (Kayattam), starring Manju Warrier, has been selected for the UK Premiere of the 12th edition, London Indian Film Festival.

Kerala’s Enfant terrible director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, returns to the festival with this new twisted Himalayan tale. Sasidharan has always been intrigued by the question of identity, its numerous manifestations in everyday life and man’s place in nature.

Right from his first film Oraalppokkam, the filmmaker has explored the many aspects of identity without ever repeating himself or travelling along predictable paths.

As such, this sixth feature film is lead and co-produced by Manju – her debut production, revolving around the central theme of identity and how it influences our perceptions and relationship with each other.

“In a way, this film is a kind of sequel to the first. The lead character’s name is Maya, like that of the heroine in Oraalppokkam.

It is a story about identity, about the many interpretations of Maya in Hindu philosophy, about the world as a kind of illusion… it is a film of many layers,” he says in a media interaction. The film focuses on Maya (Manju Warrier) from Kerala connects with younger Akash on social media and they meet in person on a mountain trek.

Their chemistry is instant and romance blossoms, however, this budding union attracts the unwanted attention of several older male fellow travellers and threatens to derail their relationship.

Visually, the movie is stunning to witness. In fact, a Q&A following the premiere revealed that the film was shot entirely on an iPhone using lenses appropriate for filmmaking. Certain sequences were apparently shot under life-risking circumstances, which is fascinating to know.

The minimal wide-shots are remarkable. We prominently see wide shots with movements of certain characters that make the camera seem like a silent witness. Through the camera shots, we trace every move of the characters, keeping us engaged throughout the movie. However, questions are constantly asked due to the abstract presentation of ‘Maya’ ideology.

Given this entire experience, kudos go to cinematographer Selvaraj Chandru for his creative vision – capturing some remarkable shots, which completely enriches the cinematic experience. In a film like A’hr, nature plays an instrumental character where it creates the enigma and beauty to what we would perhaps associate an ‘illusion’ or ‘maya’ to.

It is quite astonishing how the title “A’hr”, is a language created especially for the movie – though I wasn’t aware of this, knowing this beforehand would’ve made the viewing process easier. Actually, much of the contextual information was revealed after the Q&A and it makes me wonder if prior knowledge to this would’ve changed our perception of the film? Illusion at play again, it seems.

Enhancing the mystery are two very focal points are the music and Manju Warrier. To begin with, there are 10 songs, all improvised, written and composed on location by Ratheesh Eettillam in the A’hr language… And they are absolutely raw, catchy and gripping.

The lyrics and rhythms of the songs ironically convey what is happening during the narrative at particular sequences. The songs are performed by a group of indigenous people during the trek. These characters too are like narrators of this mystical tale – almost mirroring Dev D‘s The Twilight Players… At times, their ritualistic and idiosyncratic demeanour reminds me of Midsommar, the impact of which leaves one feeling intrigued.

It is no secret that Manju Warrier is an actor par excellence and for her to not only play such a role but also co-produce it is a courageous step. The moment we see her on-screen, she exudes a calming yet unnerving presence. Her warm smile itself is so secretive and just leaves us feeling on-edge throughout. Undoubtedly, a solid performance that carries the film.

By the end of A’hr, it leaves one feeling almost in a trance mode, being the psychedelic (type) experience it is. The movie certainly is not for everyone as the concept and require a particular taste of cinema to digest it.

Having said that, Malayalam cinema has always been fearless, unconventionally driven and motivated in conveying narratives… Regardless of the outcome. If anything, A’hr ascends this mountain of creativity.

⭐⭐⭐ (3/5 stars)

London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) runs from 17th June to 2nd July at cinemas in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, or at home, via the digital site www.LoveLIFFatHome.com. Head over to https://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/ for more on their programme. 

For screenings in Manchester and Birmingham, go to: https://birminghamindianfilmfestival.co.uk/ and https://manchesterindianfilmfestival.co.uk/.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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