I finally managed to get hold of a subtitled version of an old Malayalam film!
I should explain the reason for that exultation: one of the most frustrating aspects of my film-watching, film-reviewing career (or whatever) is that I find it so difficult to find subtitled versions of old Indian regional films. Every time a blog reader recommends a regional language film, I rush off searching the net for subtitled versions, but I usually end up disappointed. Unless the film happens to be a Bengali one (where chances of a subbed version are usually higher), I can pretty much expect a 0% chance of success.
No-one recommended Kannur Deluxe to me, but when I stumbled across it on Disney Hotstar, I looked up reviews and found it was a thriller, and possibly the first Malayalam road film. That was enough to make me want to watch it.
The film begins at night. Jayasree (Sheela), being chased by a couple of policemen, takes shelter in the garden of a Mr KB Pillai (GK Pillai). The Pillais, husband, wife, son Venu (KP Ummer) and their maid emerge, but since they’ve not seen any woman running by, the cops go their way. The Pillais are about to return to their beds when Jayasree emerges, weeping and nervous. She says she isn’t a thief, and on being encouraged, tells a tragic tale of her woes.
Jayasree is an orphan, and was brought up by her uncle and aunt, who had now (out of greed) decided to get her married to a very wealthy man—who was older than Uncle, twice widowed, and the father of six children. When Jayasree refused, her relatives were furious; her aunt locked Jayasree in her room.
But Jayasree managed to escape, and quickly got on to the first bus she could find. That brought her to Thiruvananthapuram, where she got off. But two icky-looking hoodlums, seeing her alone, began following Jayasree, who began running. She ran past the two cops, who, seeing her running, assumed she was up to no good, and went after her. The goons, seeing the cops, ran off, but Jayasree now doesn’t know what she’ll do, where she’ll go.
Mr Pillai is inclined to send Jayasree away—she’s a stranger, after all, and nothing to them—but Venu and his mother are more sympathetic. Mrs Pillai finally suggests that Jayasree stay the night with them; she can leave the next morning.
But next morning, the family finds Jayasree helping the maid cook. She’s pretty good at housework, and because she weepily begs Mrs Pillai to let her stay on (“Where will I go?”) soft-hearted Mrs Pillai acquiesces. A little later, Mr Pillai happens to discover that Jayasree has a college education, and knows shorthand and typing as well. He offers her a job in the tin factory he runs. She can begin on a month’s probation. Jayasree is relieved and very happy.
So Jayasree joins work, and has soon impressed the manager (?) with her efficiency and diligence. She is given accommodation at the company’s employee quarters, where she settles in with the other women employees (the company employs only women, since Mr Pillai fears that men will start trade unions; an interesting—and somewhat sexist?—comment on leftist Kerala). In her spare time, Jayasree is busy singing songs with Venu, who’s been head over heels in love with her from pretty much the first night she snuck into their backyard.
One day, the manager gives Jayasree the task of depositing Rs 5,000 in the company’s bank account. Jayasree goes to the bank, unaware that she’s trailed there by the manager. Later, she returns to the office and goes to Mr Pillai to hand over Rs 1,000. She explains that she had gone to the manager’s office, but unable to find him there, has come here. The manager, instead of giving her Rs 5,000, had given her 6,000, so here’s the balance.
Mr Pillai is very pleased with Jayasree’s integrity and honesty and applauds her for it. The manager has arrived in the meantime, and once Jayasree has gone about her work, the manager and Mr Pillai crow over how dependable Jayasree is; she’s certainly proved trustworthy. This, it emerges (to the surprise of Venu, who is witness to this conversation), was a deliberate test to see if Jayasree was a thief after all.
Now that Jayasree’s passed the test, Mr Pillai entrusts her with another job. An important one, and an underhand one. Jayasree, he says, already knows that the company maintains two sets of accounts in order to evade tax; well, part of the income has to be delivered in cash to Mr Pillai’s two partners, one of whom is in Kozhikode. Jayasree is to take the Kannur Deluxe bus, carrying Rs 25,0000 to Kozhikode, where she will have to deliver it to a Mr Nair, whose address she’s given.
Jayasree is reluctant; she’s uncomfortable travelling on her own with so much money. But Mr Pillai is persuasive, and finally Jayasree agrees. The next morning, she boards the bus, only to be summoned out of it by the manager, who’s come with a further Rs 25,000. He tells her that the second partner, Mr Abdul Qadir, has agreed to come to the bus station at Kozhikode to get his share of the money, so that no-one need to go to his town. He has already been given a description of Jayasree; he will meet her.
(Jayasree, who had looked shocked at the thought of aiding and abetting such illegal activities, would be even more horrified if she knew the truth: this second lot of cash Mr Pillai and the manager have given her is all counterfeit currency).
Jayasree gets on to the bus, and soon finds herself among a very varied group of characters. There are two politicians, one from the ruling party and one from the opposition, who keep exchanging barbs. There’s a man with very pronounced sandalwood caste-marks on his forehead and his father’s umbrella. This umbrella the bus conductor (Nellikode Bhaskaran) refuses to allow onto the bus (it’ll inconvenience the other passengers), and so the umbrella must be held out of the window.
There is a lovey-dovey couple, and there’s a man named Gopalakrishnan (Jose Prakash) who happens to glance at Jayasree when she gets into the bus with the money the manager’s given her. In the brief moment before Jayasree puts the money in her bag (a bag, too, which Mr Pillai has given her for this mission), Gopalakrishnan sees it. His eyes light up with greed.
Gopalakrishnan gets his ticket extended to Alappuzha (he was supposed to get off earlier), and at every stop along the way, he gets off, not just to stretch his legs, but to look at the wares being sold in the shops at the bus station and around. At one of these, he sees what he’s been looking for: a bag which is the replica of the one Jayasree is carrying.
… with the result that at some distance beyond Alappuzha, after Gopalakrishnan has alighted from the bus, Jayasree realizes her bag’s been changed (how Gopalakrishnan manages the switch is never shown). She raises a hue and cry, and the bus conductor and driver quickly get together with the other passengers to help. They turn the bus around, catch up with Gopalakrishnan (through some rather neat trickery) and manage to get him to the nearest police station.
Gopalakrishnan denies the bag he’s carrying is Jayasree’s; he spins some yarn about the money being the proceeds from the sale of some land. How much money, asks the police officer, and Gopalakrishnan, clutching at straws, says Rs 40,000. One of the policemen takes the money into an inner room to count it, and of course that means Gopalakrishnan’s goose is cooked.
Unseen by them all, a shady-looking man (who’s also been seen sitting near the back of the bus) eavesdrops and then watches through the windows as the police officer quietly tells his colleague that of the Rs 50,000 in the bag, half is counterfeit money. This man watches as Jayasree again boards the bus; also getting onto the bus along with the other passengers are two newcomers, Namboodiri (Prem Nazir) and his friend Chanthu (Adoor Bhasi). Namboodiri seems a bit weak in the head, and Chanthu spends all his time humouring him.
The man who’s been watching all this now goes to a telephone booth and makes a phone call—to Mr Pillai. Mr Pillai is taken aback to hear that the police have not held Jayasree for carrying counterfeit money. That can only mean that they’ve set someone to trail her. Never mind; what needs to be done is to kill Jayasree before she can spill the beans and make things difficult for Pillai & Co.
Unfortunately, Venu has been listening to this dastardly conversation, and confronts his father: he’s been forging money all this while, and now poor Jayasree will pay for his misdeeds?
And Jayasree, on the bus to Kozhikode, has no idea at all that her death warrant has been signed.
This was, to me, a somewhat discordant film: the first hour and a half, with the set-up and then Jayasree travelling in the bus, till the point she finally arrives at Kozhikode, was absorbing and fast-paced; after that, there was a good deal of somewhat protracted fighting which began to bore me after a while.
What I liked about this film:
The bus ride. The towns where the bus stops on its way, the scenes at the bus depots and around, even the sights one sees on the way: it’s an interesting snapshot of this part of Kerala, at this point of time.
The first half of the film, too, is interesting: the way it’s set up, how Jayasree gets this assignment of ferrying counterfeit money, and all the while she’s travelling. All of it makes for a fairly crisp storyline with a good bit of suspense (who are Namboodiri and Chanthu? What will happen to Jayasree? Why does Mr Pillai think murdering Jayasree will solve the problem (won’t murder complicate matters?) and so on. As if to bookend the good start, the end is very good too: the revelation at the climax is a whopper I hadn’t seen coming.
Plus, the music, composed by V Dakshinamoorthy, to lyrics by Sreekumaran Thampi. There were several good tunes here, and one which I immediately recognized, that of Ee mohabathenthoru, which is an obvious copy of Na toh karvaan ki talaash hai.
What I didn’t like:
The placement of most of the songs. While Jayasree and Venu are romancing without a care in the world, the singing of love songs is all very well. But later, when the action is at its peak, how on earth do people find the time to sing songs? For instance, there’s a scene where Namboodiri and Chanthu bash up a villain and after a lot of fighting are able to save Jayasree. While Chanthu attends to the villain, Namboodiri goes after Jayasree—to sing a song. Yes, granted his song is all about getting her to stop, but why sing? In a similar vein, one of the villains, after managing to temporarily get some respite from those coming after him, takes time out to go to a kotha and watch a mujra. These people don’t seem to have any sense of urgency.
Also, some odd bits and pieces here and there. For instance, these villains are so stupid that just the sight of a woman changing in front of an open window (reeking of the objectification of women, this), they freeze and gape so dumbly that they are easily overpowered by the good guys? Good heavens.
And how exactly does someone record a conversation that didn’t happen in their presence, and without any accomplices around? What’s more, with no explanation of any interesting technical rigging up of clocks, etc, or of how that tape was then retrieved, to be played at the opportune moment?
So, yes: not a great thriller, but not simply awful either. It has its pluses and its minuses.
Interestingly, here’s a little bit of interesting trivia: Many scenes of the film were actually filmed aboard a Thiruvananthpuram-Kozhikode KSTRC bus. Recently, a tussle between Karnataka’s and Kerala’s respective state road transport corporations about who could claim the right to the acronym KSRTC led to the Kerala KSRTC showing to the court clips from Kannur Deluxe to prove that they had been using the acronym way back in 1969. More about the case here.