I should begin with a disclosure. I grew up in a communist home where portraits of Marx and Lenin lined the walls of the drawing room and words like 'perestroika' and 'glasnost' were part of dinner table conversations. I have known one too many sakhavus up close - which is what made me connect to the film. And question it.
All art is subjective and for someone who has no context or understanding of the communist movement in Kerala, a film like this might fall flat. Comrade Krishnan (brilliantly played by Nivin Pauly) of Sidhartha Siva’s Sakhavu might seem like a man of myth or worse, one of the regular superheroes film industries churn out with precision. But for those who have heard these real life stories, the anger that burns in Krishnan's eyes holds a lot more meaning.
A firebrand who comes to a tea plantation in Peeramedu to sow the seeds of communism among its oppressed workers, we learn of Krishnan from those whose lives he has touched. It is a curious Comrade Krishna Kumar (Nivin Pauly again) who does this unearthing of information, perplexed by the atmosphere of awe surrounding the patient to whom he's been ordered to donate blood by the party.
Krishnan Vs Krishna Kumar is really a study in contrast between party old-timers who lived and breathed the ideology and much of the current crop to whom communism is just a job. We see a hint of the latter category's hypocrisy right from the first scene when Krishna Kumar walks out of his house, refusing to eat the dinner his mother had made because there was a strand of hair in it. However, he goes straight to a roadside stall and eats a dinner that couldn't have been made in a more unhygienic place.
But as despicable as Krishna Kumar might be - he's not above using violence to eliminate fellow comrades if they stand in his way to the top rungs of leadership - he's impossible to dislike. Nivin is charming as the power hungry and ever hungry comrade, shouting Lal Salam whenever it suits him. The confrontation scene he has with Sreenivasan who plays a stern doctor (and sakhavu) at the hospital is especially hilarious.
The reason why we like Krishna Kumar is because his insecurities are at display. Krishnan, on the other hand, is presented to us as a hagiography, a peerless leader. We do catch a glimpse of him as a father and husband but what were Krishnan's vulnerabilities? Did he never face a moment of confusion or self-doubt? Did he never waver from his principles, even for a moment?
In the 1987 Tamil film Vedham Puthithu, Satyaraj's character, Balu Thevar, questions caste and breaks many a rule in society but he realises how ingrained these ideas are when a young boy questions him about his insistence on calling himself a Thevar. A small moment of self-realisation but one that leaves a great impact. I yearned for a moment like this in Krishnan's life.
The first time we meet him, Krishnan comes to us through the eyes of a one-time enemy and the second time, it is through his wife, Janaki (Aishwarya Rajesh in a lovely, understated performance). So, while the first few sequences are full of the headiness of a righteous struggle, the second has some lighter touches (including the melodious Madhumathiye song) - and the face of Krishnan who was seen with a perpetual frown in the first narration softens to accommodate a smile, when it's through his wife that we hear of him.
But Sakhavu Janaki doesn't tell us any more about the person that Krishnan is either. His daughter (Aparna Gopinath), too recollects memories of her childhood but it's once again strongly connected to her father's politics. Fair enough that Krishnan could never be separated from communism but as a wife and daughter, did they never look at him as anything but a communist? I’d have liked to know more and this, I suspect, would have balanced out the propagandist tone that the film adopts at times.
A good part of these flashback portions is powered through by Prashant Pillai's inspired music. As in Angamaly Diaries, his last release, the background score in Sakhavu too, is an animal in itself and keeps the film going. George Williams’ camera work is impressive, capturing the beauty of the landscape and the flame in the eyes of the humans who inhabit it with equal spark. The editing could have been better, especially in the latter half when some parts of the narrative appear rushed.
Nivin Pauly is undoubtedly the best part of the film. His body language as the playful Krishna Kumar is distinctly different from that of the more serious Krishnan. The twinkle in Krishna Kumar's eyes are the embers from a fire in Krishnan's. And as the latter ages and is struck down by a stroke, it's incredible how he transforms into the role. Barely able to speak, it's the conviction on his face that makes us believe that yes indeed, the revolution is around the corner.
At a time when the communist party has been written off in national politics, Sakhavu attempts to breathe fresh life into what has been rejected as a dead ideology in many parts of the world. This is what it’s all about and this is what it should be about, it says. Some might criticize the unapologetically “mass” elements in the script but then, if communism is about the masses, should a film that was made to make them think about it eschew it?