What happens when a lonely, suicidal, alcohol-dependent depressive individual is quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic? Trust Malayalam cinema's New New Wave to raise a question that the rest of Indian cinema has not, in a form and format that most commercial cinema would hold at arm's length.
In director Ranjith Sankar's latest film, Sunny, Jayasurya plays the titular protagonist who has returned to India from Dubai after his wife leaves him and disaster strikes his business. The entire narrative " barring a few minutes right at the start and in the end " unfolds in a five-star hotel room where Sunny Varkey checks in since he is required to stay in complete isolation on reaching Kerala as per the state government's COVID protocols for newly arrived travellers. Here, he battles his inner demons and his craving for alcohol, his fear of his future and regrets about his past.
Sunny is by and large a solo-actor/solo-character film. We do hear voices of other people on the phone, catch fleeting glimpses of hotel staff, drivers and another guest at the hotel, but the story and the camera rest entirely on Jayasurya.
The subject and presentation are challenging, but the director pulls it off at a crisp 1 hour and 33 minutes running time with the aid of thoughtful writing and a leading man in impeccable form.
Jayasurya is as mainstream as they get, and the fact that he opted not just to star in this film but also co-produce it with his long-time collaborator Ranjith (Punyalan Private Limited, Njan Marykkutty) tells you all you need to know about contemporary Malayalam cinema's penchant for experimentation and determination to redefine what constitutes commercial. The result of this team's risk-taking and their faith in the script written by Ranjith himself is a surprisingly engaging film.
The one-actor structure works best when it is employed not as a gimmick but because the script demanded it. One of my favourites from the genre in recent years is British director Danny Boyle's 127 Hours starring James Franco as a hiker who gets trapped by a boulder while out in the wilderness. There is no crime, no accident caused by nature or human error in Sunny, nor is the hero a loner (although he is excruciatingly lonely). Yet the theme was just waiting to be turned into a film shot just this way considering the enforced confinement most of the world has had to deal with in the past one-and-a-half years. In fact, it is astonishing that no one thought of making this film earlier, and Ranjith deserves to be commended for having conceptualised Sunny.
There is high drama in this film yet it never resorts to melodrama. No one screams or shouts, but Sunny's life is in a state of flux and the tiniest misstep could transform it beyond recognition. Let there be no exaggeration here: Sunny is in no way a deep study of the human psyche, what it does though is make the point that what might appear to be merely everyday troubles to an observer could in fact be life-altering and tragic for the persons involved.
Jayasurya is a charismatic star and a lovely actor capable of shining even in faulty films such as the over-wrought Captain. In Sunny, which is as demanding as an acting assignment can get, with the camera unrelentingly on him, he does not let his performance rise even a milli-unit above the overall low decibel levels of the film.
The voice cast too is good and features some big names from the Malayalam film industry. I admit to a soft corner for Innocent playing a counsellor on the phone with an infectious blend of light-heartedness and gravitas.
Sunny follows in the footsteps of a steady stream of Malayalam films in recent years, including Kumbalangi Nights, Musical Chair and #Home, that have sought to normalise therapy and unobtrusively build awareness about mental health in an India where mental illness is still widely stigmatised. In this it also ends up unwittingly being a tribute to the Kerala administration's comprehensive COVID-19 programme.
Sunny's maturing during the few days he spends alone at the hotel is indicated in the briefest of moments involving a dupatta, a moment in which we realise that the hero has arrived at an important decision, all without a word being spoken in that scene.
The characterisation of this man also defies the macho conventions of formulaic commercial Malayalam cinema. Sunny does not exactly apologise to a woman for a grievous offence he committed, but he does express regret, which is a sharp contrast to most testosterone-ridden, hyper-masculine, old-style Malayalam films in which riding roughshod over wives, girlfriends and potential wives/girlfriends has been the norm for male characters played by male superstars. Sunny even has a male friend (Aju Varghese) who chides him when he borders on speaking ill of his wife (Sshivada), instead of joining in to badmouth her.
This then is Sunny, a seemingly simple film with zero intellectual pretensions. It does not aim to be a profound psychological profile of the lead, but is an interesting sample of slice-of-life cinema and addresses a question not many of us have thought to ask: what might quarantine be for a person who has (or at least believes he has) given up on life? Sunny is unexpectedly thoughtful and entertaining despite the constraints the director has placed on himself. Malayalam cinema has been quick to incorporate the exigencies of the pandemic into its storylines and/or the construction of its narratives. The likes of Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, C U Soon, Aarkkariyaam and Joji have pushed the envelope in different ways. Sunny is a worthy addition to that bank and overall, a rewarding experience.
Sunny is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.