The Malayalam branch of the Indian film industry appeared in pretty robust shape entering 2020, and thanks to the regional authorities' adroit handling of the pandemic, it's emerged arguably stronger yet. Aarkkariyam, the directorial debut of the cinematographer Sanu John Varughese (Wazir, Badhaai Ho), comprises one of the region's first dramatic responses to the ongoing crisis, and what it captures most evocatively is the sense Covid has instilled of events being permanently up in the air. (It's right there in the varyingly optimistic shrug of the title, which translates into English as Who Knows?) We're introduced to a comfortable but lived-in Mumbai couple, thirtysomethings Roy (Sharafudheen) and Shirley (Parvathy Thiruvothu), who - as news of rising infections reaches them - elect to drive to Kerala to stay with her grouchy ex-schoolmaster father Ittyavira (Bijul Menon) and pick up a young daughter who's being schooled in the vicinity. The first act establishes this couple had a fair bit going on even before Covid made Indian ground: Roy has emerged from a divorce, and is struggling to keep an import-export business running while on the move, while the young daughter is perhaps the one good legacy of Shirley's first, disastrous marriage. Her dad, meanwhile, has health concerns and outstanding debts for everyone to worry about. Yet what Varughese and co-writers Arun Janardanan and Rajesh Ravi are really interested in is what happens when plans start to change. Stuck in Kerala after the state's borders are closed, Roy and Shirley are obliged to put business on hold and check in with the daughter via Facetime; and just as they're settling into this new normal, Varughese drops a pre-interval bombshell that forces both the protagonists and us to rethink a location we'd previously taken for a peaceful retreat.
Any film shot in the course of 2020 had to reinvent the wheel in terms of how it was shot, while presumably abiding by some of the same restrictions the characters in Varughese's film are obliged to work within. What Aarkkariyam adds is a whole new tonal model for Covid-era filmmaking. Western creatives have been understandably panicky this past year, both about the kinds of stories they've reached for and how they've been told, nervous about having more than one or two actors sharing the frame at the same time. From the off, Varughese's direction displays that relaxed quality that's been such an appealing feature of recent Keralan filmmaking, blessed as it is with the extra time and space that one finds outside the usual movie metropoli. Even in the Mumbai scenes, the characters lower their masks around one another, as friends and family have been known to do. Granted, Roy and Shirley have the privilege of mobility, of cars and houses and places to retreat to come the Covid crunch. (Theirs is crucially not the heartbreaking tale of those migrant workers who had to make their own journeys home at the peak of the first wave, via overcrowded public transport, to homes they wouldn't make much money from selling; their stories are present here, though, in the form of background news reports.) Yet that unforced tone allows Varughese to get at something that feels truthful in itself: how most of us living and working outside the health service have spent the past twelve months muddling through, one way or another. These characters sing along with old songs on the radio, tend the garden, nap, eat, drink, reconnect with the essential, and - with all plans cancelled for the foreseeable - start to pick over what's gone before.
That's where the twist comes in, although even twist sounds too dramatic in this context. Development might be more accurate. Either way, the film's first and second halves tell very different stories, the result of a single heart-in-mouth line of dialogue; it's that tone that remains consistent, with no sudden ramping-up of tension that would denote a shift into outright thriller mode. Composer Sanjay Divecha continues to pick at a plaintive acoustic guitar, beloved of the indie character piece; and the crisis Roy faces is really just one more thing to deal with, arguably less immediate than the threat the virus poses. Varughese is so relaxed he can start toying with audience expectation: I think that's why he sets Roy to coughing at dinner, and developing a temperature he insists is down to the local climate. (It'd be fascinating to see how this material plays in cinemas with mask-wearing patrons: like a movie about terrorism in the wake of 9/11 or 26/11, might it seem too soon?) Yet Aarkkariyam holds admirably firm: it's a drama socially distancing itself from all manner of hackneyed thriller tropes. It works in part because that first act grounds us so skilfully in the fraught lives of these characters - we come to know them so well we want to know how they'll get through this. In part, it's down to the assurance Varughese displays behind the camera. After a full year of Covid movies that have had the dimensions of a Zoom call, it's a blessed relief to encounter something that looks like a proper movie - and which obviously enjoys all the verdant visual benefits of a Keralan setting. Ittyavira keeps citing "God's will", setting up one key theme here: how man either makes his peace with that concept, or works around it to arrive at his destiny. Aarkkariyam finally reaches us as both a film about that process of adaptation, and a notable example of same: it's an appreciable flex, occasioned by a cast and crew who, in the midst of the deadliest crisis we've ever known, rolled up their sleeves and simply got on with it.
Aarkkariyam is now streaming on Prime Video.