Manjummel Boys Is Better Than Titanic!

Manjummel Boys is a largely conventional, commercial, movie. But given the rather curvy observations that do stay intact in the film, Rohit Sathish is tempted to think what an even braver, more ambitious film would have done.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Marshall McLuhan once credited the popularity of the medical fiction subgenre, to it ‘creating an obsession with bodily welfare’, to it putting us in the shoes of both doctor and patient, to the extent that even the moral fibre of each character is secondary (Even so, shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med and The Good Doctor do add in moral conundrums — and not particularly knotty ones at that — every now and then).

Maybe there’s a case to be made that the survival movie triggers a similar obsession (a direct and visceral one at that) with bodily welfare, even when the movie’s paranoid point of view feels laughable.

Maybe that explains part of the success of most of these movies (at least with certain crowds), ranging from most of Emmerich’s disaster flicks, to relatively recent Malayalam films like Malayankunju and 2018, to what is seen as the crown jewel of the genre, Titanic.

Manjummel Boys (written and directed by Chidambaram and starring an ensemble cast headlined by Soubin Shahir and Sreenath Bhasi among others) might be better than each of the movies that I mentioned by name (yes, better than Malayankunju, better than 2018 and certainly better than Titanic) for a simple reason

It doesn’t feel that its central theme is insufficient as cinematic fodder.

By extension, it doesn’t feel the kind of shame or apprehension that the three aforementioned films felt about their core subject, which made them bring secondary, incidental themes to the fore (whether it was caste, the brotherhood of a people, or love cutting across class barriers).

The plot of Manjummel Boys goes as follows: From the industrial suburb of Manjummel in Ernakulam, a group of 11 plan a trip to Kodaikanal (also to one-up a rival sports club who went on a similar trip).

They make an impromptu stop at the (in)famous Guna caves, and their nonchalant bout of joy drastically gives way to horror as a member of this group (Subhash, played by Bhasi) falls into a covered hole of unknown depth.

Sure, ‘friendship’ is shown to be an integral and prominent a theme to this movie, in the same vein as the earlier cited films and their themes.

Even our knowledge of this group as a largely amorphous, single-minded group (with some of the characters not being particularly vivid as individuals) helps in the rather generic celebration of ‘friendship’ here.

Actors like Abhiram Radhakrishnan, Arun Kurian and Vishnu Reghu get the slightly less distinctively etched characters of the lot, while Chandu Salim Kumar’s character (as the youngest lad of the team) is consciously withheld for a pivotal moment towards the end of the film (As it stands, he still reminds you that both he and his father are more conventionally handsome than Malayalis give them credit for).

Most of the boys in the ‘Manjummel’ group are adolescents at heart, and all of the ‘Boys’ are shown as young men on the cusp of the sort of events (marriage, moving abroad for better jobs etc.) that would turn them into responsible, respectable adults.

For almost any such group of guys, such a trip could or would signify the end of a relatively more carefree period of their lives.

For better or worse, the event that changed their lives so happened to be a completely unprecedented event of almost extramundane proportions.

Sure, it could be argued that there is a greater ‘stranger than fiction’, ‘too amazing to be true’ quality to the source story of this movie than that of the other above-mentioned movies (the movie is based on a real incident that happened in 2006).

While from 1991 to February this year, the caves were best known for being a totem of Tamil cinema and pop culture (Gunaa, which back then lost the box office battle to Thalapathi, a similarly beloved movie with some iconic Ilaiyaraja songs), their reputation (dating back to the British Raj era) as the Devil’s Kitchen┬áprecedes them, having eaten up many a man over the last two centuries.

After the mishap, the locals make it a point to tell the distraught group that their friend has gone down a pipeline to Hell.

The makers of the film do well to delay the crucial event as much as possible, and let indirection do its magic, and so when the moment of misfortune falls upon them, we share the exact same shock that the actual group must have felt 17-18 years back.

Later in the movie, we get a transition, from a younger Subhash jumping into the river to a depiction of him falling down the hole, a nifty visual trick but not something that illuminates character any better.

We also get flashbacks to the boys as children playing hide-and-seek, and young Subhash hiding even after the sun has gone down and the other boys want to wrap the game up and game home.

These seem like self-conscious narrative choices, perhaps added out of the fear that continuous sequences of rescue operations wouldn’t be able to sustain the audience’s attention (This is where we miss the focus of say, Bharathan’s 1990 survival drama Malootty)

That said, in spite of the overall sentimentality that the film exudes, and the rah-rah odes to friendship, a slightly interesting truth stays intact and makes its presence felt.

What sustains the morale of the rescue operation, along with the other obvious sentiments, is the spirit of trying to ‘patch up a mistake committed with utmost irresponsibility’.

Yes, there was the fear of a trip intended to be innocuous ending in death, and the immense anxiety that follows it.

To add to that the guilt the group felt on making a dangerous choice.

What helped keep the guilt at bay (as in, from totally crippling their will) must have been this hoping against hope, which derives at least a little from the ‘we’ll see to it when we get to it’ mentality.

On some level, this rescue operation still feels like one of those instances in their childhood where they must have committed some mischief and tried to cover up or sort out the mess.

There have been responses from audience members that go this way: ‘I felt no sympathy for the gang, after all, they created this situation for themselves!’

By extension, they seem to say that responsible people would have sidestepped such an issue in the first place.

That said, maybe even responsible, logical, practical-minded people would freeze in the face of a similarly unprecedented catastrophe, and pessimism grouped with unsparing statistics can often disguise itself as a tough-eyed, realistic point of view.

As representatives of responsible people, we see police officers, forest department officials and fire force officers, and the movie makes you see them in terms of how sympathetic they are to the boys and their will to rescue their friend. I still found it tempting to see them as versions of the cops you see in movies and shows of the procedural genre.

A common feeling you see in characters headlining such procedurals, is a certain kind of fatigue — the sort of fatigue one could experience on going through a series of fantastic, dramatic events one after the other.

Different procedurals deal with it differently. A 25-year-old show like Special Victims Unit wears it as a badge of honour, while a Made in Heaven has already begun to buckle under its weight.

Yet, one wants to ask, how do these characters simply not explode? How do they not crumble from all the stress and strain?

What keeps real officials intact as human beings, and in what exact ways does tending to the worst frailties and tendencies of humans, take a toll on them?

How do they retain their patience and open-mindedness?

How do they deal with being expected to adhere to the best behaviour at all times?

When it comes to the movie, could we have used a more perceptive, closely observed account of what the concerns and anxieties of the government officials were?

After all, this was a one-off incident for them too, and even if it may not have changed them, it still might have kept them stunned for say, a day or a week.

All this may not go down the throat easily, given this is, at the end of the day, a largely conventional, commercial movie. But given the rather curvy observations that do stay intact in the film, one is tempted to think what an even braver, more ambitious film would have done.

Part of the current buzz surrounding the movie also has to do with remarks made by Tamil writer and scenarist Jeyamohan, about the boorish and alcoholic Malayalis headlining the movie (the most innocent and charitable way to read which would be ‘a half-truth rendered with utmost carelessness’, irrespective of how much truth there is to the average middle-class person’s mildly paranoid thoughts about such people marring their vacation).

The film ultimately serves as a note of caution (as heroic as the real-life Manjummel Boys feel about their acts on that fateful day, they still make it a point to say ‘Don’t make the mistakes we made’ as a parting message), but as it stands, it is also a soft rebuke against carefulness rigidly observed.