Yet, here he is the sensual artist Luca, played by the sexy Tovino Thomas, who doesn't even need a jhola, as he joins slum dwellers protesting illegal demolitions
Surprisingly, the new Malayalam film Luca, directed by Arun Bose, is about a jholawala, last seen in the parallel cinema movement of the '70s and '80s. Yet, here he is the sensual artist Luca, played by the sexy Tovino Thomas, who doesn't even need a jhola, as he joins slum dwellers protesting illegal demolitions.
Bose's second feature, after his debut Alaiyin Thisai (The Way of a Wave, Tamil), Luca unusually splices together two genres, a romantic drama and a police procedural. He also explores two parallel relationship stories. The film opens with the police investigating the death of a young man; there is talk about a girlfriend, of his suffering from depression. Right after, the film gets into the police officer Akbar's (the handsome Nithin George) personal relationship with estranged wife Fathima (Vinitha Koshy), and girlfriend Janet. The first love song is not even of the hero Luca and his partner Niharika, but of the police officer Akbar. It's an unusual editing decision, raising your expectations of both relationships.
The story is revealed in flashback, as Akbar reads a personal diary found during the investigation. Luca is an artist based in Kochi, and Niharika (Ahaana Krishna; geeky but lovely), a half-Malayali, half-Bengali chemistry scholar, comes there for research. They meet as he overhears her criticising his artwork. Later, she realises it is adipoli (awesome). There is a lively chemistry between the two, as they romance in Luca's gorgeous studio-bungalow, and in atmospheric Kochi. But the film explores deeper psychological issues, as Luca suffers from necrophobia, a fear of death and dying and Niharika also has a history of child sexual abuse. Eventually, the police investigations join the dots to reveal the tragedy.
Luca is a good film, not great, but it has many interesting elements that reveal a talented team. The way Bose mixes genres, the way he uses romance to explore mental health issues in a mature way; even the lead pair's comfortable live-in relationship is not common in Malayalam cinema.
Thomas is a real charmer, bringing conviction to his role. Krishna is an attractive foil, hinting at hidden emotional reserves. Writers Mridul George and Arun Bose attempt a daring genre-mix. It is both a whodunit and a whydunit of a double tragedy, with fascinating detail: the way someone turns pages in a book becomes a crucial detail; an elegant cat represents a relationship in limbo. However, there is disappointingly little investigation, beyond a policeman reading a diary. Sadly, Akbar's relationship goes nowhere, nor is it affected by his reading about a passionate love story throughout. There are many red herrings, including an artist-guru, a dubious relative and a builder. Also, it is unconvincing how Niharika, with a history of sexual abuse, moves in with Luca right away. However, women play interesting roles: the head of the nasty builder company is a poised woman; the post-mortem doctor is a woman; Niharika drives the van with Luca in the back seat. These are thoughtful images, rare in Indian cinema. And, though Luca is the titular hero, the film is told through Niharika's voiceover.
Nimish Ravi's cinematography is sensual. A melancholic rain seeps through much of the present; the past is more sunshine-y, though the tone not always so. Nikhil Venu's editing takes risks, but doesn't always work: a crucial fact is revealed at the start, taking away the suspense. Sooraj Kurup's music is evocative. The film, produced by Linto Thomas and Prince Hussain, is showing nationwide. But Indian exhibitors don't care to expand business: stupid Carnival Moviestar in Goregaon, Mumbai, switched off the English subtitles, so best to take a Malayali friend along.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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