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Aarkkariyam (“Who Knows?”/dir. Sanu John Varghese, 2021)

Last updated on June 5, 2021

Ittyavira (Biju Menon) is a retired math teacher living in Kottayam.  His daughter Sherley (Parvathy) is widowed and remarried to Roy (Sharafudheen, who in the space of a few films has become a particular house favourite), whose business is facing financial issues.  Roy has borrowed money from his friend Vyshak (Saiju Kurup), and because a consignment is delayed, doesn’t have the money to repay him in as timely a fashion as Vyshak needs.  At the same time, Roy and Sherley are preparing to return to Kottayam, to the home the widowed Ittyavira built and still lives in, set on a large property.  As well, Sherley’s daughter, Sophie (from her first marriage) is staying at a convent in Tamil Nadu, and one of the additional things Sherley and Roy need to organize is how to get Sophie to Kottayam as state borders are shut and travel is discouraged. 

Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese makes his directorial debut with a film set firmly in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, which runs as a thread through the background.  The film is not about the pandemic, but the pandemic serves as a backdrop against which everything happens, whether it’s with people wearing masks (sometimes haphazardly, especially in those early days when we weren’t sure if masks would be effective or not), or with the television news playing in the background.  Sherely wears a mask to take a delivery to their apartment, and washes her hands afterwards.  When Sherley ponders bringing Sophie to go to school in Mumbai, Roy suggests that the way things are going, schooling will take place at home.  On arrival in Kottayam, Roy goes to hug his father-in-law, who tells him he shouldn’t, because in Kerala they’re being told to “Break the Chain” (of transmission).  These things, the extra planning, big changes, and the little gestures that have become so ingrained in the last year are all there as a kind of reflection of the times we live in, and they are as ubiquitous as the Christian iconography in both the homes of Sherley and her father – the camera focusses on these images throughout the film, and I would not be surprised if the image of Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of plague victims, was placed in the film purposefully just as yet another reminder of how the pandemic has invaded our lives.

Ittyavira, like his daughter, is deeply religious; daily prayers form part of their routines, and Ittyavira believes that there are things that happen in life that we may not understand, but we can rely upon our faith in God, who is all-knowing and all-seeing, to support us.

Roy, on the other hand, is unsure about how much he can rely on God to help.  Awake in the middle of the night, his face lit by the glow of his computer, he watches his wife sleep while he worries. Roy notes that no matter what might be stressing their family out, Sherley is always able to sleep peacefully.  Roy suggests that this is because Sherley has a strong faith and belief in God, and notes that although he’s also a believer, he just doesn’t believe in God enough to be able to give his problems over to God in return for a peaceful sleep.  It’s this contrast, between those who are faithful enough to give their troubles over to God, and those who question, that ends up as a significant thread in Aarkkariyam, particularly for Roy.

Roy knows that, as his father-in-law Ittyavira (Biju Menon) says, you shouldn’t worry about things beyond your control, but he also wonders how anyone can do that when a business is in trouble, as his is.  Ittyavira is a retired math teacher, but keeps himself busy, whether it’s arguing crankily with his household help, preparing a bed and bedding for his daughter and son-in-law, or looking after his property.  He frets over the trip Roy and Sherley are taking, calling to check in and fussing over whether where they have stopped is safe.  Ittyavira’s home is a refuge (as one of the songs in the film suggests) in a time when so much of life is precarious and when there are so many unknowns in the world at the beginning of the pandemic.  It’s a place where he and his daughter and son-in-law can be safe and share the simple pleasures of cleaning, cooking, playing cards and praying and watching mass together.  Yes, they are concerned about Sophie and how to bring her to be with them, but they know that she, too, is safe at the convent, and they can stay connected to her through video calls.

There is some irony, then, in the fact that it’s Ittyavira’s home, that is the thing that will help Roy with his failing business, as well as provide money for Ittyavira to pay off his own debts as well as buy a place to live somewhere that will be more suited to him as he continues to age, especially as he begins to show signs of failing health.  The house is a refuge, but it’s also an important asset, and although Roy initially objects, Ittyavira is more realistic, noting that if he died without dealing with things, the bank would just seize his property.  Better to sell it, and solve everyone’s issues, rather than wait until more problems arise.

It’s the attention to little details that really make this film for me.  The way Covid protocols quickly became part of our lives.  The way that gender roles are more fluid here – both Roy and his father-in-law cook; Roy and Sherley take turns driving on the trip to Kerala.  The fact that this is a second marriage for both Roy and Sherley is delivered organically, without fanfare – we learn these things just as part of the conversations they have as they go about their preparations.  These are the things that make us feel the rootedness of the film and its characters – who are obviously comfortable with and care about each other deeply – and which renders Ittyaivra’s revelation, delivered in such a matter-of-fact way, so shocking.  

I came to Aarkkariyam mostly because I’m a fan of both Biju Menon and Parvathy, and they are both excellent and dependable here (especially Biju Menon, who does an impeccable job of inhabiting a character who is much older than the actor actually is).  But this film belongs squarely to Sharafudheen, whose Roy must bear the burden of his father-in-law’s revelation, and who must resolve both his financial problems and the realization that he needs to come to terms with what his father-in-law has revealed.  Sherley and Ittyavira both rely on their faith in order to make some kind of peace with the moral dilemmas that they have faced in life; for Roy, things are more grey – there is a moral grey zone here that makes it less easy for Roy to simply trust that everything that happens in life is as God wishes.  The second half of the film finds Roy on a quest to resolve the bombshell that his father-in law has dropped into the midst of their safe haven.  We already know that Roy is unable to simply place his faith in God’s hands, and Sharafudeen shows us a man who is quietly disturbed and troubled, and also baffled, suddenly unable to reconcile what he now knows, with what he believes about the two people he is closest to.

Sanu John Varghese gives us a film that is difficult to categorize:  it’s neither a drama, nor a thriller.  Neither is it purely a simple slice-of-life film.  Instead, it draws on elements from each of these, creating a kind of contemplative thriller that is rooted firmly in this Kerala household, in this place, in this time, and asks of us, just as it asks of Roy, to explore the limits of his faith and what it can support.  Like Roy, we are challenged to believe – to believe that things happen for a reason, and accept that sometimes we cannot know all the answers and simply must rely on faith.  But on whose faith can Roy rely?  That of his father-in-law, which seems to be a faith of convenience as Ittyavira finds bible passages that suit him to allow him to believe that his actions have been God’s plan all along?  Or that of Sherley, who is comfortable handing her troubles to God so she might feel less burdened.  In the end, Roy’s exploration and the actions he decides to take leave him changed – marked with a wound on his hand, a kind of stigmata that suggests he is more virtuous after what he has found and what he has done, and with, as he says, a cross that he will carry to his grave.

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