Pick of the Week: Moothon
A riveting, brilliantly performed saga of love, loss and searching.
Moothon (The Elder One) written and directed by Geetu Mohandas (Liar's Dice) is about the impact of relationships. It tells the story of Mulla, a young boy from Lakshadweep who wants to go to Bombay to look for his elder brother Akhbar (Nivin Pauly, in an unrecognisable avatar). Akhbar left the island years ago, supposedly because of a failed love affair with Amina. When Mulla realises that no one wants to open up about what transpired between Akhbar and Amina that compelled him to leave his home never to return, he resolves to find him on his own because Mulla is yearning for a relationship in which he can be understood, and find comfort. And so he too, leaves the island in the hopes of finding his brother.
After being rescued by a ship, Mulla reaches Mumbai and has to brave one too many horrors. He runs away from the seedy warden of a government orphanage and finds Rosy, a sex worker who helps him find a job and warns him to stay away from the mysterious Bhai. But lost in a new city, where he doesn’t understand the language, he’s eventually discovered by Bhai and his sidekick Salim (Shashank Arora), who plan to sell him. This is one of the roughest portions of the film, to watch Mulla struggling to fend off bullies - ranging from small boys intent on protecting their turf to goons like Salim eager to make big bucks at Mulla’s expense. Mulla’s life has been one of constant struggle - from running for cover (from classmates who forced lipsticks and dupattas on him), to fighting the likes of Salim and Bhai, to finding his brother. When it is finally revealed - to Mulla and to us - where and who his brother is, the film immediately cuts to a flashback which unfolds in such stark contrast to the story so far, the momentary relief you feel within is thick and palpable.
The flashback tells the story of Ameer (Roshan Mathew, who you can’t take your eyes off) and Akhbar. It is not a love story we haven’t seen before; the love in question is forbidden to say the least, and the heartbreaking result, not entirely unexpected. However, the brilliance lies in the performances. Mathew as the mute, charming young Ameer is bound to make you smile, the way he makes Akhbar break into shy grins. Nivin Pauly gives Akhbar a fullness that the character may not have gotten with a lesser actor. The range of emotions - from longing to pain to the thrilling exhilaration of being touched by someone you desire - is incredible to watch. But the flashback is not just a love story, it also connects Mulla and Akhbar together at their roots. The shared struggles they have - with their identity, with coming to a new city - finally line up with each other. Mulla is in a way going through everything Akhbar went through - they both changed into completely new beings because of a lost relationship. And although the flashback reveals what happened to Akhbar and his relationship with Ameer, how a religious, devoted and shy man changed into an abusive drunkard, is left for us to imagine in this intricately layered film, whose script won the Global Filmmaking Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The aesthetic sensibility is unlike the director’s much more raw and realistic debut feature Liar’s Dice, which was India's official submission for the Best Foreign Film category for the 87th Academy Awards. The visual expanse of this film is dramatic and expressive. The story seems to shift between two physical worlds. One is the breathtaking island, with comforting hues of blue, green and yellow. There is a distinct quality of magical realism in this world, where the ocean feels like a protective, all-knowing presence, watching over everyone in its waters. When Akhbar is lost in a serenely romantic mood, enjoying the sun instead of laying bait for the fish he’s supposed to catch, the water appears to want to join in this happy moment. A school of fish jumps into his boat, as if to imitate his own happy high. In contrast, the underbelly of Bombay is coloured in dark and dramatic hues of red and gold. Any magic that was felt in the open spaces of the island is lost in the cramped ‘red’ light areas of Bombay. The Akhbar who once willed fish to jump into his boat to share in his happiness, is virtually unrecognisable as the perennially intoxicated drug dealer and child trafficker.
Moothon is a love story that dwells on the destructive, violent ramifications of love. When a certain kind of love is no longer desired - be it an impossible one like Ameer and Akhbar’s, or when it becomes complicated and demanding; like the obligation Akhbar feels to protect his sibling who has shown up more than ten years later - how deep do the cracks from it run? When love begins to feel like an impossible burden, and starts a cycle of violence, does it even deserve the term ‘love’? Or is the film willing us to accept it even in it’s ugliest forms?
Now streaming on Zee5.
Geetu Mohandas is an Indian actor, writer-director hailing from the state of Kerala. In 2013, she directed the socio political film Liar's Dice which has received two National FilmAwards, was premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and was chosen by the Government of India as India's entry for the 87th Academy Awards.