Director Manu C Kumar who has also written the screenplay, would rather simplify his underdog triumph narrative, using every available cinematic trope to do so.
A few minutes into Sesham Mike-il Fathima, you know exactly how the leading character’s arc is going to evolve. And it’s staged like a Twinkle Digest story—once upon a time, there was a little girl called Fathima aka Pathu, who lived in a small town in Malappuram (North Kerala). She loved to chatter non-stop, was obsessed with football, and would pass running commentary for every match on TV and even cartoons. She hailed from a traditional Muslim family that was typically amused by this side of her. And then one thing led to another, and she dreamt of being a football commentator.
One isn’t sure if some of the country’s best-known sports commentators came from such a space—where their casual talkative side gradually progressed into a profession that required so much nuanced information and experience. So the backstory seemed very fairy-tallish and oversimplified. More so when in veracity, there have to be many subtexts and conflicts to the core story. That the sports commentary dreams are harbored by a woman who hails from a middle-class Muslim family in a small town in North Kerala itself evokes complexity. That too in a profession that has no female presence. But director Manu C Kumar who has also written the screenplay, would rather simplify his underdog triumph narrative. He uses every available cinematic trope to play up Fathima’s story.
In the last decade, which also broadly marked the turn of the new wave in Malayalam cinema, one refreshing element was the rising number of stories placed in North Kerala, a terrain that was rarely used in cinema earlier. There were sweet little stories of people emerging from small towns while absorbing their ethnicity, language, and culture with nuance. But after a while, even such realistic narratives started to get stale, with writers and filmmakers incapable of bringing any freshness to their plotlines. Sesham Mike-il Fathima can be added to that list but what perhaps redeems the show has to be Kalyani Priyadarshan’s infectious performance.
For an actor who has proved herself a safe bet in urban stories that have her confidently acing the role of boisterous, free-thinkers, this was an alien space. Except in aligning with the basic character trait (forever bubbly and fun), Fathima was a challenge, more so as the actor who speaks Malayalam with difficulty, has to dabble with the local Malappuram slang. And to add to that Pathu has to dispense hardcore football commentary in the same slang, besides convincing us that she truly belongs there. Kalyani owns Pathu and you know that it took her a lot of effort to reach that space, especially when you compare that to Thallumala’s Beepathu. Sure, she grapples with the dialect, but also has the advantage of being a Dubai-raised kid. But what seemed effortless was in selling us her passion for the game and commentary. That wasn’t pre-meditated.
The feel-good tropes are so evident that they literally scream from the rooftops. The free flow of dopamine, for instance, is encircled by happy families, connections, emotional ties, and friendships. The characters are either black or white. So you have Pathu’s small family, consisting of the usual strict, anxious dad (an effective Sudheesh), restraint-but-liberated-in-her-mind mom, loving brother, and an adorable grandmom. It’s a pity that when it comes to Muslim celluloid moms and grandmoms, they are always boxed as saccharine-sweet, domesticated typecasts. That’s why the passage that has Pathu’s mom teaching her how to whistle fails to cheer you up. The gender intricacies and biases are very casually handed over.
Take, for instance, her first gig that goes smoothly and conveniently, carefully keeping the difficult questions aside considering the milieu. Or her journey to manifest her dreams, all have the trappings of a superficial narrative. There are of course stray remarks about a woman’s code of conduct, marriageable age, and dangers of being ambitious, apart from the religious biases attached to her gender. Those are clearly strained postscripts. But we remain invested as Pathu’s arc at least remains consistent. However, after a point, we also start to predict her reactions. Like the scene when she visits a debauched politician at his flat, we feel no stirrings of tension, as we know she is equipped to handle him. Then it goes overboard, in a penultimate stretch when her dad and relatives storm into her apartment.
You also have those one-dimensional villains or Pathu’s roadblocks in her journey. The two politicians who oversee the sports academies and their attempts to lead her astray were poor writing. In fact, apart from the father and her journalist friend (Femina George and a fairly accurate journalist depiction), the rest of them were fatalities of inadequate writing. There is Solomon Margarate, that genius player who is facing a ban for taking dope and underdoing depression. That woefully unoriginal sketch is further worsened by Shaheen Siddique’s dull performance.
Some of the casting choices were questionable, to put it mildly. Malayalam cinema’s growing obsession with a non-actor like filmmaker Gautham Menon is baffling. Wonder what he brings to the table than boredom? Especially when his character gets a crucial scene in the film. Though not at the same level, Unnimaya Prasad should think twice before slipping into those efficient, no-nonsense characters off late. There are no surprises anymore.
The victory of the underdog narrative structure is faithfully employed here as well. Though we are shown her resilience, setbacks, humiliations, and comebacks, they fail to move us as they should. Instead the “triumphs” come from other unexpected areas. Take this beautiful confrontation between Pathu and her father and how she wins him over stringing a memory from another time. But those are few and far between.