The story of Aarkkariyam (made by cinematographer turned director Sanu John Varughese) is set during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Married couple Shirley (Parvathi Thiruvothu) and Roy (Sharafuddeen) are driving down from Mumbai to be with her aging father at his home in rural Kerala. We learn early on that this is a second marriage for both of them; Shirley has a daughter from her previous relationship, now studying in a convent boarding school some hours away from her father's home. Shirley's father Ittyavra (Biju Menon) is the typical old-school backwater "Lord of the Manor", a man who for so many decades has nurtured his backyard and farmlands, and for whom old age is an unwelcome, if also inevitable burden. He is taciturn and sometimes crotchety, but dotes on his family. He is also deeply religious, a trait that echoes in Shirley.
As the couple integrate into the daily routine at Ittyavra's - having meals together and sharing the household chores - she is anxious to find a means of bringing her daughter home at the earliest. Roy has financial worries as well, what with the lockdown leading to his imported goods consignment indefinitely stuck in the customs hold. To help out his daughter's family, Ittyavra comes up with the plan of selling off his property, and giving them a part of the money while shifting to a more manageable apartment. There is one slight hitch, as he casually reveals to Roy when Shirley is not around: He has long ago buried a body in the kitchen yard, and the skeleton needs to be destroyed before it is excavated by any builder that buys the property.
Aarkkariyam may be described as a moral mystery. The question that Roy (and the audience) has is, who is this dead person and why was his body buried in secret in the premises? Common logic would suggest that he get the story from his father-in-law, with whom he appears to share a relationship of trust and respect; after all the bonding between father and son-in-law is a core element of the film. But in a not very convincing conceit, Roy becomes withdrawn and secretive, opting instead for an exercise in tracing clues through a series of conversations with strangers in some way related with the tragedy. Rather than as an organic progression of the script, it is as though the writers (Sanu John Varughese with Arun Janardanan and Rajesh Ravi) felt that having Ittyavra directly spill the beans would not be sufficiently cinematic in a drama that is already conversation-heavy. The manner in which they attempt the circumvention leads up a convoluted path that only adds (pun unintended) 'dead space', without sufficient payoff.
But while the film errs on the side of rambling in trying to tell a measured
tale, it is not guilty of unnecessary dramatics or that dreadful habit
of superfluous twists that destabilize the narrative. When the truth is shown to Roy, it is not some earth-shattering moment. There is a quiet confession and an equally quiet laying to rest of an old burden. Without obvious sign-posting, it gives a beautiful underpinning to the actions and beliefs of the involved characters and helps us understand them better as people.
Apart from the aforementioned meandering tone during Roy's 'investigation' I thought there was an excess of external intrusion into the setting by way of Roy's interactions with his Mumbai friend Vysakh played by Saiju Kurup (Also, they speak to each other in a puzzling mix of Malayalam and Hindi, which I have never seen Malayalees in Mumbai do). These could have been pared down and perhaps Vysakh could have been reduced to a less frequent voiceover, just my thought. My other bugbear was with Sanjay Divecha's score. He is an excellent jazz musician for sure, but this movie has too much underscoring, to the extent that I got annoyed with all the guitar twanging. I would have preferred for it to go the other way, keeping non-digetic music to a minimum.
Even with these issues, there's a warm humanist streak in Aarkkariyam that beautifully shows in the writing and performances, and makes it worth recommending at least as a once-watch. Beyond that, well, who knows?