REVIEW 709: LUCA
June 28, 2019
Tovino Thomas, Ahaana Krishna (credited here as Ahaana Krishnakumar), Nithin George, Vinitha Koshy
An air of sadness hangs thick and heavy over Luca. A policeman is called to a crime scene. As he searches for answers to the mystery he must solve, he grapples with questions of his own in his personal life. Through his investigation, we get acquainted with a young couple at the centre of the melancholy pervading the entire film.
Luca takes its name from its attractive hero, a popular artist played by Tovino Thomas. It tells an engaging story made all the more so by Thomas’ easy charm and natural chemistry with the charismatic heroine. Arun Bose’s direction, the writing by Mridul George and Bose himself, and the acting by the lead couple are designed to conjure up a halo of heartache around this young man who has known loss and unimaginable pain.
We are introduced early in the film to Niharika Banerjee (Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela’s Ahaana Krishna, credited here as Ahaana Krishnakumar). She is a PhD student in Kerala for some research when she accidentally bumps into Luca who, at first, comes across as a stereotypically temperamental artist. Their maiden encounter is a pleasant little overturning of the age-old “boy meets girl, boy and girl have misunderstanding, boy and girl are antagonistic towards each other which leads to an attraction that she at least masks so that she can have him chasing her, until at last they acknowledge their love for each other” Mills and Boon-style silliness.
Yes they do start off on a spat but it comes from a believable – and quite funny – situation, unlike the contrived bunkum commercial Indian cinema has been serving us for decades in this space. They clear up the misunderstanding almost immediately, there is no faking of anything between them, and they become instant friends.
With its uncommon treatment of a lead pair getting off on the wrong foot, the film ends up getting off on the right foot, its determination to steer clear of clichés becoming evident from here on. And for the most part, it does stick to its goal.
Luca’s atypicalness is one of several reasons why an aching sweetness envelops it from the start. If we get its understated messaging, good for us, but if we don’t, there is still a simple, heartwarming romance to be enjoyed here. The film does not seek to impress us with intellectual profundities although it does end up having a point to make. Many points, in fact.
Take for instance Luca’s empathy in its approach to mental illness. Or the manner in which it educates the audience about necrophobia and thanatophobia while neither drowning us in jargon nor sounding like a dumbing down. Or even the emphasis on the heroine’s Malayali-Bengali descent. Contemporary Malayalam cinema is replete with mentions of the poor Bengali migrant labourers who have made their presence felt in Kerala society. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a portrayal of this reality, but it helps to remember that this community is as heterogeneous as all others. The mention of Niharika’s Bengali father makes no difference to the plot, but it does tell us that Messrs Bose and George are minds worth tracking.
The two have clearly also done their homework in the area of forensic science. As an avid consumer of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, sundry CSIs, Criminal Minds and other American crime serials, I had somehow missed the news that fingerprints can be used to detect gender. Now I know, courtesy Malayalam cinema.
These little details, Nimish Ravi’s cinematography and Anees Nadody’s production design that combine forces to demarcate the two simultaneous storylines by seasons and by colour palette, and the quality of the hero’s art works, especially that first spectacular installation at the Kochi Biennale, all add up, giving the film a certain finesse. One grouse: though the subtitles are quite good and even take the trouble to translate song lyrics, which is something Indian subtitle givers do not do often enough, the smattering of grammatical errors – “he pleaded me” ... “tensed” ... “anyways” – is exasperating.
What works for this film then is Luca’s life story, the role Niharika plays in it, the suitably languorous pace, and the whodunnit (not counting two needless red herrings that are left unexplained). What does not work is the effort to parallelly tell the tale of Akbar and his wife Fathima. The latter is played by Vinitha Koshy whose considerable talent was on display in Ottamuri Velicham (Light in the Room). She then can hardly be faulted for the lack of spark in the Fathima-Akbar relationship – the problem lies with the uninspiring writing of their story.
Malayalam cinema recently pulled off a similar narrative structure with greater success in the Joju George-starrer Joseph. In that film though, the policeman’s personal story was not just convincing, it was more gripping than the case he was working on. In Luca, the mystery that Akbar is trying to crack is way more appealing than the dull Akbar-Fathima angle, which desperately needed some revving up and depth.
The other aspect of Luca that does not quite sit well with the rest of the smoothly flowing narration is the use of non-Malayalam languages. It is clear from a regular viewing of Malayalam cinema that for many filmmakers in Kerala, Hindi is an aspirational language in the way Hindi film makers once viewed English and, for instance, chose to make a point about coolth/class by assigning English dialogues to Amitabh Bachchan’s characters to impress and intimidate those around him with his Anglicised accent – it worked in some Hindi films like Aakhree Raasta(1986) but by the time Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan(2011) came around it had become a dead bore.
Language can be jarring when its use is self-conscious and does not seem spontaneous, and the insertion of the one-line Hindi refrain in the romantic number Vaanil Chandrika in Luca sounds wannabe and forced. That contrivance is put in the shade though by the stereotyping that screams out when a song featuring a line starting with “Ya Maula” plays in the background while Akbar is pondering over his personal predicaments. In two scenes. Because he is an Akbar you have to go the “Maula” way? Really? Uff. And worse, when Niharika and Luca kiss for the first time, an English song comes up. Uff again. That latter device takes away from what is otherwise a pleasant comfort between Thomas and Krishna there, and the film’s own comfort with physical intimacy in an industry that is still awkward around scenes of sexual closeness between members of any gender.
In small ways do writers unwittingly reveal their conservatism. In this case, the latter two instances are disappointing because in other small ways, Bose and George offer other little touches that we do not often get in Malayalam films. How many times have you seen a woman driving a vehicle in which there is also a male passenger in Malayalam cinema, or for that matter in ads created across the country? Or a woman guitarist in a band? We do here in Luca, without a big song and dance being made about it.
How often do we see a man able to take a no from a woman who has opted for physical proximity to him, without that woman being treated by the narrative tone as a tease? Again, we do here in Luca.
And then that English song plays, and I am given pause, and I wonder: are Bose and George faking their progressiveness, or are they not even aware of how far they have to go? Is this why they made Niharika a Bangalore-based half-Bengali instead of a full-blown Kerala-based Malayali girl? Cos let’s face it, “north Indian girls are easy” and “city girls are easy” is the kind of tripe often to be heard from Malayali men if you travel across Kerala.
Tovino Thomas has already proved in successive films his ability to add subtle yet distinctive nuances to roles that might on the face of it seem like the same natural charmer but end up being so much more because of him, from the loveable rascal of Mayaanadhi (2017) to the tempestuous lover of Theevandi(2018), the chap trying to mask his insecurities with bluster in this April’s Uyare, the quiet efficiency of his character in this month’s Virus and the exhaustion of the money-strapped filmmaker he plays in And The Oskar Goes To also released this month. The actor gives his Luca such an aura of sorrow and tragedy despite his boyish fun-loving appearance, making his sure-footed performance the fulcrum of this film’s effectiveness and poignance.
Ahaana Krishna has a compelling screen presence and an easy on-screen equation with Thomas that makes them perfect to play both buddies and lovers. She did need the director to control an occasional impulse to play cute, as he should have controlled her tendency to make her gestures and lip movements more pronounced than usual in dialogueless scenes that are overlaid entirely with songs as though she is afraid the viewer in the last row will otherwise not notice. Those quibbles apart, her performance in Luca is proof that she can carry a film on her shoulders because although it is written from the hero’s point of view, it ends up being as much hers as his.
Barring a jarring performance in the minor role of an industrialist called Saipriya, the rest of the cast is fair enough.
No doubt there is more that this film might have been, but the tone and style of the mystery reminded me so much of one of my favourite British writers, Agatha Christie, Bose conjures up such a Christie-like atmosphere in his narrative, and Thomas and Krishna are so good together, that everything else is put in the shade. In Luca’s final twist, Christie faithfuls are likely to spot flashes of two of her beloved bestsellers, one of which was in itself a bow to William Shakespeare’s arguably most iconic work. I am leaving all three unnamed to avoid giving you clues, but know this: Luca is not a copy, it is a thematic revisitation and a wonderful tribute to Christie’s classics.
As Kerala’s legendary rain pours down in sheets, and Akbar inches closer to determining his answers, I could not take my eyes off the screen nor detach myself from the grief of that young artist and his loyal companion long after I had left the theatre.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: