The premise of Munroe Island looked quite interesting. A father drops off his adult (eighteen-year-old) “sociopath” son at his ancestral home, where the grandfather still lives. What happens next? This movie is categorised as thriller on Netflix. I think more than the synopsis, the title intrigued me. Malayalam movies, like Bengali ones, are way ahead when it comes to experimenting offbeat themes. I figured Munroe Island would be one such treat and I was not disappointed.
We are introduced to the grand patriarch (played by Indrans to astounding perfection) lovingly addressed as Appoopan by the grandson (Jason Chacko). We also get to meet the house-help Kathu (Abhija Sivakala). We follow them around the jaw-dropping (for city dwellers like me) ancestral home. It’s shot on location and it’s not a gaudy set. Neither is the place a new-age teak and marble monstrosity. It’s a sprawling house that’s weathered many elements. There is the unpretentious gate leading to a sheltered porch. If you can take a minute to stand there, you can see the property in its gorgeousness, surrounded by the quintessential rambling garden grounds. A flight of stone stairs leads you to another landing, where, perched on a pedestal, a blue Krishna stands in His usual pose, watching all those who enter this house. Behind Krishna is the house itself, with its corridors and stairways and cosy rooms, breathing of old times whilst accommodating the modern. But we don’t get to roam around the house as viewers – Nair’s camera restricts us to the dining area and two bedrooms.
We are fed crumbs to chew on as the story unfolds. Kesu, the troubled teenager, arrives with his father to Munroe Island. The father thinks Kesu needs psychiatric help and would have preferred to send him to Nimhans. But Appoopan thinks its bollocks – there is nothing wrong with Kesu and if he’s acting up, it’s only because the father is overbearing. What Kesu needs is freedom and space to figure out things. And no place on earth can be as therapeutic as this island.
You almost agree with Appoopan. He is the strong old man most of us have seen in our own families. The ones you could turn to, to fix any silly problem brought on by unhealthy and corrupted city life. Appoopan is rock solid in a very fundamental way – the sort of strength you gain when life is unhurried and the food on your plate was probably harvested a couple of minutes ago. Appoopan is confident of sorting out Kesu’s problems. .
We are drip-fed Kesu’s “problems”. We are told he killed a neighbour’s dog back in the city. Kesu calmly explains how he was experimenting with barbiturates and injected the dog with this concoction. A mild sense of unease settles in you with this revelation. Kesu’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour begins to worry Appoopan. Kesu has no appetite. He leaves his meals midway to head to the town. He speaks inappropriately and one minute he’s disgustingly rude, the next, he’s just a kid apologising. He speaks of atrocious crimes he’s committed in a casual way but can you really believe him? Perhaps he’s just a sadist, telling you things he knows will shock you, haunt you and strike fear in your mind. You feel Appoopan’s desperation and bewilderment as things spiral out of control. By the time Appoopan realises the impending disaster, it is too late.
For me, I think the most fascinating character was Kathu. As the help, she does not have much to say but your eyes follow her around as she goes about her never-ending chores. She is gentle, ever-smiling. Her past is dismissed in a line or two – she was brought as a young girl to look after Kesu when he was a kid. She probably left years later and got married but it did not work out. So, she was back. Now in her early thirties she’s done with all that life has to offer a young woman like her. It is heart-breaking if you think about it. And you realise the island is metaphorical – in her own way Kathu has marooned herself - there is safety and predictability in this island and that’s more than enough. Even so, you get a glimpse of the road not taken. When Kesu follows her around the house clicking her pictures, you see the subtle layers peeling off her. Of course, in her mind, Kesu is still the little boy she’s nurtured years ago and she indulges his whims by posing for him. Somewhere, perhaps even unknown to her, she soaks up this sudden male attention – this is a man staring her, not a child. And her smile blooms as she poses in classical dance mudras for his camera. In the thrumming humidity of the afternoon light, she is now this buxom goddess in her simple blouse and mundu, as lush and fecund as the green garden around her. But her island is invaded by this new outsider and she must again go away, thrust back to the outside.
If you are looking for a typical thriller, with racy twists and turns, this may not be a movie for you. The pace is slow and rightfully so because time moves this way on the island – ripple by ripple, breath by breath. It is unhurried story-telling and a lot is said in the silences. You have to be attentive to the dialogues (or the subtitles, in my case) and really read between the lines.
Pratap Nair’s cinematography ensures the island comes alive and becomes a character of the plot, and this to me, is the key ingredient in elevating Munroe Island to something unforgettable. The island is situated in Kollam, and it is a sheer slab of emerald. You don’t even need a decent camera to get a good picture - I guess even if you click photos blindfolded in this place, they’ll look stunning. But then, one can shoot as many soaring coconut trees curving to touch the green waterways and still miss something essential - Nair’s camera captures the very soul of this place. The lack of intruding background score is a blessing. Instead, you hear the island breathe in the trill of its insects, the wind through the trees and the water lapping clayey banks. You can smell the salt in the air and feel the humidity. In one hypnotic scene, Appoopan is lying on his bed by a window. An unpretentious nylon curtain, most probably a saree in a previous life, rhythmically billows and flattens in the wind. Outside, the day is white in the tropical sun. You can feel your pulse slowing down and eyes drooping!
I guess the weak link was in Kesu’s casting. Chacko has expressive eyes but none of the menace the character requires. Besides it’s quite a stretch on the imagination to see him as a teen. They should have selected someone from that age group and polished the character even more. Remember Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin? Someone like that who can show an edginess …this would have elevated the movie to a completely different level. But it is a difficult task when you must deal with the constricts of a genre at the same time hint at deeper existential layers. To that end I think Manu’s film is sheer brilliance.
It’s a pity movies like this one, Thithi and so many other regional gems don’t get wider recognition within India – thanks to the cacophony of Bollywood. Thank god for Netflix.
© Sumana Khan 2017