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A Dog Day Afternoon: Notes On Mammootty's Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam

Watching Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is like waking up from your afternoon siesta feeling out-of-sorts. In a way, that’s the whole point of Lijo Jose Pellissery's film.

A Dog Day Afternoon: Notes On Mammootty's Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam
Still from Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam
  • Neelima Menon

Last Updated: 11.45 PM, Jan 20, 2023

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A few minutes into Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, you get the feeling that sepia-toned photographs are slipping out of their frames, and unhurriedly playing out in front of you. And their details are so clear that you can even count the wrinkles on an old woman’s smiling face. The initial montage shot makes the nooks and crannies of Pazhani tangible: Roadside vendors selling fresh flowers and sugar palm fruit; steam rising from the puttu being deposited onto a steel plate; shops of varying sizes lining the narrow and dusty street; and people — sitting, watching, walking, taking note of the world going by. Punctuating it all is the incessant flow of retro film songs and dialogues that serve as music and background score.

Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is perhaps Lijo’s stillest film to date, in more ways than one. It has none of the paraphernalia associated with the director. It is also ironically the funniest film to come from him. The chaos is hushed, the conflicts are almost dreamlike, and the characters are so unintrusive that you'd think Lijo filmed them in candid moments.

A group of artistes from a drama company in Kerala are travelling in a van through the green meadows of Pazhani, when James (Mammootty) wakes up from a nap, brings the vehicle to a halt, and walks into the interiors of a village. As you look on in bewilderment, he changes his mundu, steps into a green tinted house, and slips into a loose shirt. A woman reclining on the bed awakens and is startled by this stranger smiling at her. James walks around the house, seeming quite familiar with the kitchen and the people in the family. James has become Sundar. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (meaning 'afternoon nap') centres on James' inexplicable duality.

In a narrative that takes its own sweet time to unravel, what keeps us invested is the spontaneous humour that lands perfectly. The characters are a mix of interesting and generic. James' wife Sally, for instance, has very little dialogue but establishes very nicely the intensity of the husband-wife bond. Or Sundaram’s father, who is strangely empathetic towards the stranger who claims to be his son. The wife and the daughter who are still processing this unknown man who has trespassed into their lives. The friend who looks at him with suspicion.  

The James to Sundar transition is ambiguous, and the narrative leaves itself open for interpretation. James is shown to be cantankerous and miserly. He is impatient with his family and isn’t very open to new experiences, be it a place or a cuisine. On the other hand, Sundaram is depicted as a simple villager, deeply attached to his family.

In fact, Sundaram feels like a character from a drama, especially in how others react to him: In one scene he breaks into a jig, and talks nineteen to the dozen with a group of strangers; the minute he leaves, they erupt into laughter, wondering who this person is. While James' companions and family try to make sense of the proceedings, they are fairly certain that sooner or later, he will snap out of it. 

Despite having an actor like Mammootty playing a Malayali James and a Tamilian Sundar in one frame with ease, certain things don’t quite land. While he gets the language switch quite seamlessly, there isn’t enough on paper (writing by S Hareesh) to allow us to invest in Sundar’s predicament. So when the actor does a near-perfect rendition of his bafflement and helplessness with his people and Sundar’s family as witness, you are looking at the performance, not the character’s plight. Or the scene when Sundar quietly cries as he eats, calling out for his daughter... the emotion doesn’t catch up with you. It seems very premeditated. (Though that Sundar to James transition in a second is a cracker of a moment from the actor.) It’s like waking up from your afternoon siesta feeling out-of-sorts. In a way that’s the whole point of the film.  

Lijo’s films always have an uneasy coldness with human emotions, and it is no different in Nanpakal. The meter works so long as you chuckle at the characters' quandaries and don't dig deeper into the human psyche. Having said that, in the end there is a gentle message about humaneness and understanding transcending borders and cultures that’s hard to miss.

Nanpakal requires some amount of patience to sit through, but the film is elevated profoundly through Theni Eshwar’s meditative frames. Not Lijo's best work, but a film that will perhaps offer fresh insights to unpack during every rewatch.

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