Imagine a man whose reaction to his fear of death ends up ruining his life.
Vipin Atley not just imagined it, he wrote a whole film on the subject, composed the music and wrote the lyrics, directed and co-produced it, starred as the lead, and at the recently concluded International Film Festival of Kerala 2021, was rewarded for his efforts with the NETPAC Award for the Best Malayalam Film.
In Musical Chair, Atley " who earlier wrote Ben and Homely Meals and starred in the latter " grapples with a range of existential questions that confront our species. The film revolves around a writer called Martin. At 32, Martin is terrified that he will follow in the footsteps of his father who passed away after a heart attack at the age of 40. This is not a normal fear of death that most humans face. Martin's anxiety is so acute that he over-eats, drinks, chain smokes, obsessively consults doctors and subjects himself to diagnostic tests in a self-perpetuating cycle of behaviours that drive him further up the wall, dragging his mother and best friend with him.
This lethal blend of unrelenting dread, lifestyle diseases and hypochondria in one man might sound morbid and depressing as a choice of theme, but Atley manages to coax a thoughtful, thought-provoking, intermittently even funny film out of it.
Martin's apprehensions and quest for answers take the narrative through ruminations on the purpose of living and the meaning of death, to religion and rationalism, faith and fakery, all expanding on Atley's vision of human existence on Earth being but a game of musical chairs. His odyssey results in insights not just into these macro ideas but also tiny, delightful observations about the peculiarities, eccentricities, pretentions and breadth of knowledge of the average Malayali, and about intellectually keen, culturally active Kerala where an autorickshaw driver may well hold forth on the force/s behind the cosmos and a festival dedicated to the Spanish avant garde filmmaker Luis Bunuel could be around just about any corner.
At first, the many visuals of food and cooking in Musical Chair, carefully framed by DoP Sajid Nazer, are pleasurable. After witnessing the havoc wreaked by that food on Martin's body though, I found myself paying more attention to Nazer's focus on the frying, the bubbling oil, the coatings of grease and the oil slicks on those dishes.
As interesting as the food shots is Musical Chair's changing palette. It is initially pale with sudden dabs of colour when you least anticipate it " such as a faint glimmer of green on the surface of a gray sea or a thin emerald-hued blanket of moss on the black rocks by those waters. Slowly and steadily, it shifts to the rainbow spectrum of regular life as Martin becomes energised when he thinks he has found a solution to his problem, before it recedes into dull shades once again after a nerve-wracking event.
For the most part then, Musical Chair is a rewarding experience, especially because it never veers from its commitment to its premise. A comment about adivasis by one character is likely to raise eyebrows, so it is essential to point out that the remark comes from a man who is crass in general, the sort of man who is likely to speak precisely like that in the real world too. In fact each of these characters comes across as a real person wandering the streets of a Kerala city.
Musical Chair slips up on other fronts though, including with a sprinkling of bad actors, the stretching of the narrative after a big reveal towards the end and the fact that, as with most Malayalam cinema including progressive Malayalam cinema, Martin inhabits an almost entirely male universe. There is only one significant woman in the story " his mother " and the screenplay not only fails to delve deep with her, to the extent that we get to know her it paints her as a one-dimensional creature utterly lacking empathy even if she does worry for her troubled son.
The script's maleness exacerbates the borderline sexism in a statement about "women and men who think like women" that jars because it is made by an otherwise sensible man during an otherwise striking scene about the cunning of organised religions.
The poor acting, thankfully, comes in small roles. The rest of the cast seem like real people rather than actors, not necessarily brilliant but convincing enough. In the role of Martin, Atley himself gets under the skin of his character such that it is as if he is this innocent, sad, petrified youth, personally experiencing his debilitating tension, his curiosity, his fleeting sense of triumph and his gloom.
Atley's musical choices include a pensive background score with a surprise interlude in the form of a vintage Hollywood number. In a transitional passage, as Martin begins to believe that he may yet conquer fate, we hear the song Old Turkey Buzzard from the 1969 Western, Mackenna's Gold. Too often in recent years, non-Malayalam songs " usually Hindi " have been stuffed into Mollywood films to incongruous effect. Cases in point: the Malayalam-Hindi-Punjabi Pala Naallayi in Oppam and the Malayalam-Hindi Thalolam Thumbippennale in Brother's Day. There are few examples of such songs turning out to be a good fit in the narrative: this one is.
Old Turkey Buzzard works in Musical Chair because it comes across as having come naturally to Atley, it flows smoothly into the storyline and, as a song about the inevitability of death that renders human shenanigans pointless and greed ridiculous, it is relevant to the scene in question. "Old Buzzard knows that he can wait / 'Cause every mother's son has got a date / A date with fate..."
That it occurred to Atley to weave this particular song into his film and that he pulled it off without the number sounding like a foreign intrusion in a Malayalam venture, says everything that needs to be said about Musical Chair. It's a smart (albeit flawed), philosophical yet unpretentious film that is as unpredictable as Martin's journey. It is reflective. It has a sense of humour but it never trivialises mental health nor does it poke fun at Martin himself, viewing instead with sensitivity this sweet-sad fellow who is so afraid of dying that he kills every iota of joy this life might have offered him.
Rating: 3.5 (out of 5 stars)
Musical Chair won the NETPAC Award for the Best Malayalam Film at the just-concluded International Film Festival of Kerala 2021. It is available on YouTube Movies and Google Play.