By Fatima Husain
Crime, sexuality, gender, and tolerance – adequate to sum up the theme to Director Geetu Mohandas' latest bilingual Indian feature; The Elder One (Moothon).
Set in the densely populated lanes of Mumbai, this Hindi/Malayalam narrative tells the story of 14-year-old Mulla who escapes the sleepy and dreamy shores of Lakshadweep (India) in quest of his long-lost mysterious elder brother; Akbar. Mulla braves the sea singlehandedly in a stolen boat and lands himself in chaotic and turbulent Mumbai.
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What follows next is his face-to-face encounter with the melancholic corners of the city; he is found by the local police and sent to an abusive orphanage, lands at the doorstep of a kind-hearted but helpless prostitute, and is forcefully taken by an imposing goon ‘Bhai’ (Nivin Pauly) - who is determined to sell him off once he's been 'tamed'. Whatever that meant.
Mulla's disability to speak Hindi - the language of the city, limits his understanding of his surroundings. He lives under constant threat - fleeing one horror after another and is yet determined to find his brother.
Intertwined in this chaos is a tender queer love story, where director Geetu Mohandas takes us back to the island in a serene but long flashback.
And just when we were about to forget the present-tense action, we are brought back to the violent buzz of Mumbai where the perplexity of gender-identities, tolerance, and sexuality stay strong amidst the backdrop of the criminal city.
As the story moves forward swiftly, revealing the secrets of both Mulla and Akbar, audiences are left to sympathize and predict the fate of the two. The film's apparently open ending, however, did not seem satisfactory to an audience that sat through the two-hour-long screening. It was to no surprise that later, an audience member requested the director to explain what the ending actually meant.
The Hindi dialogues are written by Anurag Kashyap who has also co-produced the film.
The solid performances delivered particularly by the male characters Nivin Pauly, Shashank Arora, Roshan Mathew, and Sujith Shankar are a feast on screen.
Child actor Sanjana Dipu has undoubtedly delivered an intense performance - veritable to the essence of the demanding character.
As explained by the director and the crew during the Q&A at TIFF'19, most scenes - including those that portraying sexuality (in a style quite atypical for mainstream Indian cinema), had no retakes and actors improvised with limited to no direction.
When compared to Geetu's first feature - and her directorial debut "Liar's Dice", The Elder One is too complicated a story as many things unfold instantly, forcing the viewer to keep pace with quite a few explained and over-edited scenarios. The jarring camerawork screams South Indian cinema.
The flashback, however, serves as a relief with a more linear and slower approach to the narrative.
The low-key lighting appears to be overly done and is too dim in certain places, leaving viewers muddled about what's occurring on screen.
The script was originally written under the title: Insha'Allah; In pursuit of Akbar. And won Geetu the Global Filmmaking award at 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The Elder One was released during the Toronto International Film Festival '19.