Kaanekkaane is not easy to slot. It is at one level a thriller, but an unconventional addition to that genre since the big reveal comes much before the climax. The reason for this narrative structure is evident: the mystery-that-was-not-initially-considered-a-mystery is pivotal to the plot, but at its core, this film is less about the suspense around that element than it is a study of human psychology.
Directed by Manu Ashokan whose debut feature was the excellent Parvathy-starrer Uyare (2019), Kaanekkaane's effectiveness hinges on its meticulously measured incremental revelations about its central trio. Manu and writers Bobby and Sanjay (who also wrote Uyare) are determined not to paint any of them as an all-out villain or angel, which is the entire point of the film, the source of its brilliance but also its Achilles heel since this determination leads to a disputable equivalence being suggested between two characters. This contentious comparison calls for a long discussion, but the film nevertheless remains riveting from start to finish, not just as a whodunwhat but also with the gradual unravelling of the moral questions it raises.
It begins with a lightly gray-haired Paul (Suraj Venjaramoodu) buying chocolates, candles and matches at a roadside store. The latter are for a visit to a cemetery, the chocolates are for his grandson Kuttu (Alok Krishna).
Paul next arrives at a house and the door is opened by a pregnant young woman. She addresses him as Papa but he seems to know little about her and they are clearly uneasy with each other. We gradually learn that she is Sneha (Aishwarya Lekshmi), wife of Allen (Tovino Thomas) who was earlier married to Paul's late daughter Sherin (Shruti Ramachandran) who died in an accident.
In a quiet and unhurried manner, the narrative travels back and forth between the past and present to establish Paul's easygoing equation with Sherin, the father-son-like bond between Paul and Allen, Paul's quest for justice for Sherin, how Allen and Sneha met, the load on the grieving Allen's mind and the inexplicable force gnawing at their relationship. The direction and Abhilash Balachandran's fluid editing ensure that there are no obvious heralds of these shifts in time, yet spotting a shift becomes an enjoyable exercise without being a strain.
Each scene adds a new piece to the puzzle, while the music by Ranjin Raj is used to enhance the film's enigmatic atmosphere and air of intense sadness.
Kaanekkaane is about how lives can be altered forever with a single decision, how guilt or bitterness can consume people, about the pulls, pushes and complexities of relationships, and how in a moment of weakness even an ordinary human being might be capable of shocking, even uncharacteristic, morally repugnant deeds.
This brings us to the one issue with the film. Two persons in Kaanekkaane indulge in briefly terrible conduct at separate instants in time. It is not impossible to believe that real people might behave similarly, but it is troubling that the storytelling implies an equivalence between their actions. The first was criminally heartless, compounded by a pile-up of lies, and the progression towards that final act is inadequate; the second is a momentary, believable and relatable lapse of conscience with a build-up towards it that, while not justifying it, does help us understand how it might have happened.
The forgiveness that comes in the end is dependent on this duo viewing each other as equally culpable. In reality it is likely that they might have arrived at this conclusion, but the problem is that the film itself appears to take the stand that they are.
Bobby and Sanjay are stalwarts of Malayalam cinema, and up to that second where these two individuals are equated by implication, the narrative is flawless. Here though, it feels like convincing characterisation has taken a backseat to the larger point that Kaanekkaane aims to make.
It does not help this turn of events that the writing of Sherin is not as detailed as the others, nor is her relationship with Allen fleshed out as thoroughly as the rest. The sudden revving up of emotions and the pointedly elevated sound design in the last scene also do not match the understated tone of the film until then.
While this debate continues, it must be acknowledged that Kaanekkaane is gripping and beautifully acted every step of the way.
Tovino and Aishwarya are as immersed in their roles as they usually are, making it hard to unequivocally pass judgement against their characters. Although very different films, Kaanekkaane is a worthy follow-up to the electric chemistry they conjured up on screen in Mayaanadhi (2017).
The supporting characters in this film are also well cast and well played.
The heart and soul of Kaanekkaane, however, is Suraj Venjaramoodu who has had an incredible journey in recent years from character artiste to leading man.
If you thought it was not possible for him to outdo his own performances in Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, Vikruthi and this year's pan-India rage, The Great Indian Kitchen, you thought wrong. Venjaramoodu seems to be in possession of a secret weighing instrument on which he determines the optimum quantum of emotions to express on screen without the effort showing. His perfectly calibrated acting in this film is epitomised by that conversation in which he tells Allen about the life he had planned for himself if Sherin had been alive. He broke my heart in that scene.
There is a lot to recommend in Kaanekkaane, and right on top of that list are two words: Suraj Venjaramoodu.
Kaanekkaane is streaming on SonyLIV.