A few minutes into the Lijo Jose Pelliserry’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (NNM or A Mid-Day Slumber), which languidly opens in the pilgrim town of Velankanni, we see the following verse written at the entrance of an inn.
“Death is sinking into slumbers deep,
Birth again is waking out of sleep”
James, played by Mammootty, reads this and says ‘Thirukkural’ sounds like the name for a play. The events that unfold later feel like a play set in a sleepy rural village of Tamilnadu. James and his wife and some other families from his hometown are at Velankanni for a pilgrim visit. Usually, religious abodes in films come at the end, acting as the location for the redemption of characters, like in G. Aravindan’s Chidambaram, which culminates at the Shiva temple in the town of Chidambaram. Or Vipin Radhakrishnan’s Ave Maria, where the entire film takes place in Velankanni.
NNM opens in Velankanni, and the major events happen in a rusty old Tamil village on their way back home. As the pilgrims return to their homes, the small bus stops in the middle of rural Tamil Nadu, and James wakes up from his afternoon nap and begins walking into a village. The events that take place somewhere near the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala place James in an ‘in between’ state that blurs the lines between reality and dreams, as well as the duality of identity and language.
The location appears to be similar to the many villages in India that seem to be frozen in time. There is no sense of urgency; men are seen sitting sluggishly on the benches of a tea stall, a woman is seen drying cow dung cakes on a wall, and a grandmother is seen constantly watching TV while wearing a black glass on the verandah of her own house, oblivious to the ‘drama’ that takes place in her own abode.
James walks into the village, goes inside a house, changes his clothes, talks Tamil to a sleeping woman, gets on a motorcycle, and leaves. The people in the house are dumbfounded and stunned. James, a Malayali Christian, was transformed into Sundar, a Tamil Hindu who had gone missing from the village some time ago. In the 1993 Malayalam movie, Manichitrathazhu (remade in Hindi as Bhool Bhulaiyaa and Chandramukhi in Tamil), psychiatrist Sunny (played by Mohanlal) tries to describe Nakulan ( played by Suresh Gopi), the mental condition of Ganga (played by Shobhana) by saying the dialogue: “Haven’t you read in newspapers incidents like a 7-year-old Muslim girl suddenly starts behaving and chanting Sanskrit shlokas like a 71-year-old Brahmin woman? Old people term this as possessed, but in Psychiatry, we call it split personality or dual personality ”.
Similarly, Lijo is not interested in explaining the logic of James’ mental condition. He neither wants to fall into the story of a Malayali man getting possessed by a Tamil ghost. He is a filmmaker who tries to achieve something more than narrating a story by utilizing the audio-visual potential of the medium to the fullest. The filmmaker attempts to elicit the concerns and brotherhood of ordinary people divided by language, religion, and borders. The Christian community, which had come to relax and rest in a small Tamil Nadu village, is able to empathize with those from a different culture.
NNM could be Lijo’s most subtle and perhaps his finest work. Things move at a leisurely pace, with no attempt to repeat information or any deliberate attempt to signify subtext, such as the cavemen epilogue sequence in Jallikattu. Certain tropes are reminiscent of his previous films. His passion for bringing together large groups of people within a frame is seen here as well. Though it’s not choreographed in a deliberately chaotic manner and doesn’t throb with a sense of escalating violence, like in Jallikattu or Churuli, the staging is mostly set against walls of small houses where people are moved in and out of a perfectly composed frame within a frame; or while they have a conversation or when sleeping on the verandah with patches of afternoon sunlight that at times reminds us of a renaissance painting.
NNM’s unhurried pace is flawlessly supported by Theni Easwer’s static camera, which is uncharacteristic of Lijo’s previous films. Like Anwar Rasheed used sound design to style and uplift the narrative in Trance (2020), Lijo uses the potential of sound to enhance the viewing experience. Old Tamil film songs, advertisements, and dialogues constantly play in the backdrop, sometimes as a subtext and in other places, feels a little overused.
In a beautifully staged scene set in a local bar, an inebriated Sundar lip-syncs and switches between characters from the classic Tamil film Gauravam (1973), as the popular dialogues uttered by the great Sivaji Ganesan (who played a dual role in this film) loudly plays in a nearby local cinema. While switching between two characters, Mammootty becomes the red and green lights. Sundar/James is performing for himself and his only drinking companion, standing next to him amidst a crowd of people who are not observing this. Apparently, the dialogue includes a line like “We both can’t stay at this house together; you better leave this house,” which is actually uttered in NNM. This particular scene could be a visual summary of the entire film’s attempt to comment on duality.
Lijo’s fascination with what is real and unreal, the borderline where dream and reality collide, is also present in NNM. Like the newly appointed pastor who turns out to be the Saint/God at the end of Amen, the supernatural presence in the climax of EE.MA.YU, where the angels are shown approaching a seashore in small boats, the climax of Churuli, where the hunter and the hunted both levitate in a jeep to a realm that seems like an unknown dimension to humans, Lijo tries to bring in the presence of the supernatural or the divine in NNM through subtle symbols of death-like crows that wait for the last bite, or a dog that follows his favorite spirit.
When we see James having memories, dreams, and living Sundar’s life, we are reminded for a split second of the cosmic truth, i.e., we all share the same stardust. Despite their linguistic and cultural differences, James and Sundar are one. We believe we are witnessing something more than a story or a drama; we believe we are witnessing the oneness of humanity through the medium of film. Another moment that only a cinema can achieve is the shadow of a person remaining in a wall where the actual person leaves the frame during one of the film’s peak moments.
When powerhouses like Mammooty and LJP collaborate on a film like NNM, expectations skyrockets. Mammootty is tasked with portraying two characters, which he does with ease and simplicity. Though Malayalam cinema is praised for its ‘content,’ very few Malayalam films employ or enhance the possibilities of the cinematic techniques, the few exceptions being films like 1956 Central Travancore (2020), Vith (seed, 2020), and Prappeda (2021). Suppose Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (NNM) does well at the box office. In that case, it could be a game changer for other filmmakers to make films that innovatively use and explore the language of cinema. It could push filmmakers to play with ambiguity and space, which can engage the viewer rather than spoon-feeding them.