The film had its world premiere on August 4 at the Locarno Film Festival where it is competing for Pardo d’Oro (Golden Leopard) in the Concorso Internazionale segment.
Filmmaker-screenwriter-editor-cinematographer Mahesh Narayanan had never lived in Noida until he went there to work on his fourth feature film as a director, Ariyippu (Statement). He visited small factories – the world it is set in – and workers’ homes and even wrote the screenplay while sitting in Noida. “I wanted to be there and understand everything: the living and working conditions, the salary scale, the expenses, the food the workers ate. I didn’t think of it as research but as making the film through their lived reality and perspective,” he says.
In the film, Narayanan focuses on a working-class couple – Hareesh (Kunchacko Boban, also the film’s producer) and Reshmi (Divya Prabha), immigrants from Kerala working in a medical glove factory on the outskirts of Delhi. It’s about all hell breaking loose for them when a skill video of Reshmi, made for a work visa application, is mixed with footage from an old sex video resulting in mortification and a unspeakable humiliation. It also brings back secrets, lies, crimes and misdemeanors from the past to haunt the present, even as new instances of wrongdoing begin to emerge.
The film had its world premiere on August 4 at the Locarno Film Festival where it is competing for Pardo d’Oro (Golden Leopard) in the Concorso Internazionale segment. It was in 1981 that Rabindra Dharamaraj chakra had pocketed the first prize of the festival for India. Much like Narayanan’s previous directing projects – whether Takeoff (2017), CU Coming Soon (2020) Where Malik (2021)—Ariyippu is also rooted in reality. “I love picking up stories from around me and I’m a big fan of documentaries,” he says. The inspiration for the new film came from a small article he had read in the newspaper five years ago about a bank clerk approaching the Bombay High Court for a statement stating that the person in the video circulating in her office was not her but a lookalike. It stayed in the back of his mind, traveled with him over time. “But every idea needs to be rethought with new situations and contemporary socio-political realities in mind,” Narayanan says. Thus, his keen interest in immigration stories led him to bring a new dimension to the screenplay. But why the National Capital Region or the NCR as it is better called? “There are many people in Kerala who want to move to foreign countries for better pay and livelihood. Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, Ghaziabad, NCR is a transit place for them while they apply and wait for the visa. They work on less important jobs and lower wages in these factories while the visa takes time to be processed,” says Narayanan.
Where Ariyippu Marks a departure from Narayanan’s earlier films is in the way it eschews the tenets of mainstream cinema. “When I started thinking about how to edit the film, I decided to be honest with the subject and not add any commercial flavor,” says Narayanan. It gave him the freedom to add layers of other types – to make it a study of characters, society and economics.
The result is a very authentic recreation of the mundane world of business owners and their workforce. It revolves around the finality of human irrelevance in a profit-only system. Like Ivan Ayr Mel Pathar, the universe is as close as Indian cinema can possibly get to a Ken Loach.
There is the austere “industrial staging” of the factory and the claustrophobic, shabby residences of the workers and the endless toil of the workers. A world captured in its joyless harshness – the man loading and unloading stuff, the woman testing the gloves in the inspection department, both weighed down by life, but toiling in the dark drudgery. These struggles in the outer world go hand in hand with inner conflicts. There’s not much dialogue, but a lot is communicated through fleeting expressions, gestures, and body language.
Grit marks the recreation of Hareesh and Reshmi’s wedding. The manipulated video not only threatens their job, but also their relationship. Hareesh begins to doubt Reshmi, as she feels betrayed by the lack of support from him. Things start to fall apart further when an offer is made to them to cover up a crime. Between theirs
dreams and ambitions and call of conscience the wife opts for the latter, she resists and defies the regulations thrown her way, while the husband does not hesitate to compromise.
This element of the past encroaching on the present and the couple’s opposing position recall the moral complexities and conflicts explored in many of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s films, particularly in The Salesman (2016). “I’m a big fan of Farhadi, but also of Robert Bresson and Costa Gavras. I consider Farhadi the Ingmar Bergman of this generation,” says Narayanan. But he also thinks all of his own movies so far have dealt with marriage in some way.
What’s worth appreciating is that in this deep dive into the film’s human nature, it’s two fiery women who present their strengths. On the one hand women who contribute to a conspiracy of silence around a crime, on the other Reshmi and her supervisor (played by Loveleen Misra), with their moral core intact, anomaly in a too
compromised male cosmos. It’s up to them to get to the root of the factory’s misdeeds. “We don’t appreciate or acknowledge the stubborn decisions that people often make. They stand idly by and don’t back away from them no matter what,” Narayanan says.
Narayanan established new paradigms for cinema during the pandemic with CU Coming Soon (2020) which has looked into issues of virtual relationships and privacy, cybersecurity, hacking and human trafficking. Considered India’s first lockdown film, it was shot entirely on computer screens and made with an iPhone from the homes of its cast and crew.
Ariyippu is set in the COVID reality and was filmed around Delhi during the Omicron wave although the factory itself was recreated in a setting. He considers the 30-day shoot his toughest yet. Real workers were deployed for the background roles, while the actors themselves were trained in the glove factory to have a realistic feel. Almost everyone contracted COVID and filming had to be halted for three or four days, Narayanan recalled. However, despite the difficulties, he also enjoyed the filming very much. “The subject matter may be hard-hitting, but the energy behind the film was a lot of fun,” he says.
The film marks many other firsts for him. Like working fluently with the seamless blend of Hindi and Malayalam language (nearly 50:50 in dialogue) and casting a formidable cast of Hindi film industry players – Danes Husain, Loveleen Misra, Faisal Malik – alongside the trusty Kunnchako Boban and bubbling and simmering Divya Prabha. Not only is Narayanan able to capture the working class culture of NCR very well, but he also captures the time perfectly. The grayness and winter, the pollution and the heavy haze in the air become metaphors for the moral ambiguity and ethical darkness at the heart of the film. The thrill also seeps deep into the hearts of its protagonists.
He worked with his usual collaborators and crew, Sanu John Varughese behind the camera, again. “Everyone understands my vision very well even if Ariyippu is not my usual kind of cinema,” he says. The approach had to be simple and minimalist and get as close as possible to the people and the setting. Art director Jothish Shankar was instrumental in capturing North Indian detail. Narayanan collaborated with Rahul Radhakrishnan, who was his own student, on editing. The film may not be a regular thriller, but the scenes are dense with a sense of urgency even as they unfold slowly and steadily.
Finally, just like CU Coming soon, Ariyippu also deals with the many ironies endemic to the digital world. By deleting a video and posting a statement on the bulletin board, the chapter does not have to be closed. Nothing really disappears; the digital footprint remains and may come back to haunt another group of people in the future. That would be something else for another film.
Namrata Joshi is a nationally award-winning freelance writer and film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).