Saturday, August 15, 2020

Eeda [dir. B Ajithkumar]

Indian cinema owes a debt of gratitude to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; that tale of star-crossed lovers is almost its own genre in this land. The hearth of the Great Indian Melodrama has in turn given back to the source by way of variations on the theme. As I recall in the bard's original script, the background for the feud between the Montague and Capulet families is never particularly elucidated and we are to take for granted their sworn enmity that forbids the romance of their children. In our film adaptations wealth/social divides, histories of revenge and even language/cultural barriers have been woven as the backdrop of clan animosity against which our young lovers revolt in the avowal of their love.

B Ajithkumar's Eeda (2018) introduces political conflict as the new ground for the discord. Our Romeo and Juliet are Anand/Nandu (Shane Nigam) and Aishwarya/Ammu (Nimisha Sajayan), natives of Kannur who first meet - appropriately - in the midst of a curfew. Their encounter is not a peaceful exchange of sweet nothings: Nandu is tasked with taking her home on his bike while avoiding rioters, and they have a tense exchange about his choice of unfamiliar routes. The selection of the leads and the manner in which this whole sequence is captured sets the tone for the film to follow. While Shane (also seen in the enchanting Kumbalangi Nights) has a Ranbir Kapoor-esque appeal that may set teenage hearts aflutter, neither he nor Nimisha in this film are given any kind of gloss or halo separating them from the rest of the cast. Nandu's entry and his manner of rescuing Ammu are never adorned with the HERO treatment. Her fears about being led by a stranger on an unknown route are sympathizable, and their ensuing arguments not the exaggerated blow-ups that are precursor to cloying romance. When Nandu drops her off at her destination, there's no grand moment of chivalry or macho posturing.

In Mysore, just a bus-ride away but a different world altogether with its cosmopolitan air, the two later meet again as regular young urbanites - she is a student in the university while he works for an insurance firm. The same groundedness and attention to small details underlines the romance that develops. How rare and refreshing it is to come across an onscreen depiction of budding love that respects the spaces, silences and the awkwardness which define that sweet ache of courtship. Like how the late Sachy's Ayyappanum Koshiyum reinvigorated the revenge drama by its organic building up of one sequence upon the other, Eeda's script and direction encrust the romantic narrative with a realism that overrides any sense of déjà vu. Even the scene where Romeo's famous balcony climb is referenced is not a quick stunt moment; you can feel Nandu's trepidation and physical struggle to reach Ammu's window. It is precisely because they are relatable ordinary people whose emotional attachment transcends their fears that their bond emerges as a powerful entity which justifies what happens later.

The third major character here is their hometown in Kannur, a constantly simmering pot of tense relations between the Marxists and the Right-wing. Here politics is not an abstract concept or a matter for leisurely teatime discussion among gentry, it is a vital, visceral force running through the populace, gripping entire families (womenfolk included). For each faction, the 'Party' is like a collective that governs the fates of its members and their kin: an individual may on orders cheerfully walk away from a kabaddi game to prison, or a marriage alliance may be fixed as per their directive. And from time to time, each tribe demands its quota of blood. While Nandu and Ammu's romance would be an unquestioned fact in Mysore, it is a different story in Kannur: here, they belong on opposite sides in a conflict they want no part of, but which is determined to bend them to its will. There are few obvious villains here. Nandu's uncle Govindan cares for his followers even as he orders them to perform violent acts, while Ammu's mother obviously loves her, but will not support her defiance of the party's ditkat. Keeping stereotype hysterics to a minimum, Eeda steeps us in the enveloping quicksand of violence and dread that strangles the dreams of our young lovers.

While retaining its credibility, Ajithkumar's script aims for more a mythic touch in its final act. Nandu and Ammu's more pragmatic visions of a joint future are shattered, but in a knowing reprisal of the circumstances of their first meeting, the lovers are determined to be together even if their fate has already been sealed. It is a fitting conclusion to a heart-tugging journey.

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