Manjummel Boys Review: Heartfelt Ode to Friendship

Manjummel Boys gets so many things right, applauds Arjun Menon.

Manjummel Boys, the directorial outing from Chidambaram of Jaan E Man (2021) fame, is a self-contained friendship story, punched up within the trappings of a engrossing survival drama.

The film is based on a real life incident that happened to a group of friends many years ago in the tourist destination, Guna Caves, named after the Kamal Haasan starrer Guna.

Manjummel Boys follows the fictionalised version of events, involving a group of slackers, who spend their time boozing and losing the local sports tournaments, not adding much value by way of their existence to anyone around.

In an early scene, we see them crash a marriage reception and we are told that they are the sort of crowd who leech onto all social gatherings, in the guise of friendship just to have a good time. We get clearly conceptualised markers that define each member of the group, all of whom are united by a love for tug of war and drinking.

Their personal lives are drawn out in an adequately framed setup that skims over the requisite details that we need to lock into, for the structural machinations of Chidambaram’s screenplay to work.

We get characters with personal tics like the screamer, whose high pitch is a source of concern for his friends, the neatness freak whose penchant for cleanliness is not appreciated by tha group ther such built in details that keep us informed about the characters.

The economy in writing small yet important exchanges between the characters, and constant setup and pay off loop, elevates the film’s tone and pacing.

The story kicks off when the Manjummel Boys decide to go for a three-day tour out of spite for their opposing sports club, who seem to be doing well in life and having adequate time to enjoy with friends. The aspirational quality of their sudden tour plan is an important facet of their group dynamic, they rarely stop to think and just follow their impulses, to whatever end it brings them.

Manjummel Boys kicks into high gear when one of the men accidentally falls down into an open pit, inside the notoriously off limits Guna Caves, the pit curiously named Devil’s Kitchen by the local community. We learn about the deadly reputation bestowed upon this side of the cliff and the film flips tone from therein to a survival drama.

Manjummel Boys inverts the structure of the routine survival thriller by constantly cutting back to momentary glimpses of the group’s flashbacks as young kids, engaged in key moments that have defined them in life.

The overcrowded group sometimes work against this effect as the film’s attempt to focus on the individual journeys of two central characters inadvertently highlight the shallow, by-the-numbers quirks of the remaining boys as just a narrative compromise aimed at honouring certain logistical requirements of the rescue mission.

Bharathan’s classic Malootty is sure to pop up in your head once the film settles down to its rescue efforts.

Chidambaram is aware of the tiresome nature of these kinds of stories that have been rebranded and handed over to us umpteen times.

He tries to cut through all the bland minutiae of survival thrillers by finding interesting parallels in the well written flashbacks that add value to the immediacy of the rescue journey, adding a layer of urgency to the central plight.

There are no half measures and the film-making leans into the fantastical and dream-like imagery to help contextualise the particular predicament through repeated motifs of the child stranded in the abandoned woods and after life-coded dreams.

The neatly drawn tug of war flourish that comes back in an important way in the finale is an example of the sort of self contained, clever design that permeates the entire film.

The forest guard and police officials are represented as hasty figures constantly interrupte during their eating breaks, who have lived through these rescue drills several times over and are indifferent towards outsiders calling the shots and their volatile outbreaks.

The rest of the film deals with how the group of friends navigate an unsympathetic rescue force into submission by the sheer will of their friendship.

As trite as that sounds, the film never comes across as heavy handed in the way it unravels the details of the drama involved in the rescue attempts.

Coming to the performances, Sreenath Bhasi and Soubin Shahir get the best conceived stretches in the ensemble drama. They get to relish the empathy in the severely underwritten parts that makes emotional sense over anything else. They are helped by the writing that better represents their surface level complexities through their childhood parallels.

Jean Paul Lal makes a mark as the ruffian.

George Maryan is well cast as the superstitious local who holds back the group at crucial junctures.

Shyju Khalid moves himself out of the way and brings an observational quality to the film.

Manjemmal Boys is not complete without earnest performances by young actors like Deepak Parambol, Ganapathy, Khalid Rahman, Balu Varghese, Chandu Salimkumar and Arun Kurian, who get short changed as background noise that hits and misses in between all the commotion surrounding the rescue.

The writing falls short in the way it accommodates their arcs in the larger picture and lets them be emblematic figures rather than well defined people, who also happen to be the best kind of friends one can hope to have in life.

The camera finds interesting ways to pierce through valleys, creaks and the pit, framing it as a void slowly consuming the boys in their efforts, and pulling them in one by one to its bottomless depth.

Sushin Shyam lifts the film through his synth based score that is reminiscent of the early 2000S, when the film is set in. The score keeps the tonal shifts between the gloomy, sludge filled rescue to the heightened fantasy of the childhood sequences fairly seamless.

Sushin charts a road map for the emotional journey of the characters without being overly showy.

Manjummel Boys is a well oiled machine of a screenplay that is efficiently staged without losing its momentum.

The film trades in interesting conceptual ideas like the climatic moment when the Kanmani Anbodu song is recontextualized in a whole new light and you can’t help but marvel at the tongue-in-cheek brevity of the moment, where the song takes on a whole new meaning.

This would have easily been confined to a passing reference in another maker’s version but Chidambaram is assured enough to lean fully into it and use it as
the sole diegetic sound cue in the film’s pivotal scene.

The film also does not shy away from representing the aftermath of such a traumatic, life-altering experience from the vantage point of the survivor, and addresses his slow ascent, figuratively and literally, back into normal life.

Manjummel Boys gets so many things right that the small nitpicks don’t amount to much in the larger picture.

Manjummel Boys Review Rediff Rating: