Kolaambi review: A captivating look at a vanishing culture

Release Date: 19 Jul 2019

Cinestaan Rating

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Shriram Iyengar

TK Rajeev Kumar's occasionally self-indulgent film is built on an evocative soundscape and pleasing aesthetics.

From the very first frame, TK Rajeev Kumar's Kolaambi establishes its aesthetic quite clearly. The story's quiet humanism and moving performances lay the foundation for a beautiful narrative that is captivating and stirring. Despite being a little self-indulgent, Kolaambi is quite the cinematic experience. With a capable cast comprising Renji Panicker, Rohini and Nithya Menen, the drama reminds viewers of the possibilities of cinema. 

The story begins in the quiet neighbourhood of Mattanchery, where an old couple (Renji Panicker and Rohini) live in a house dominated by old loudspeakers (kolaambi in Malayalam). Their only source of income is from the visitors who drop in to listen to their unique LP collection and enjoy a traditional cup of coffee.

However, after a piece of legislation is passed, largely banning the use of loudspeakers in the state, the couple is impacted financially. They struggle to repay a bank loan and come to depend on the generosity of their neighbours. One day, Arundhati (Nithya Menen), an artist seeking inspiration for the Kochi Biennale, lands up at the couple's doorstep and discovers a new purpose.

TK Rajeev Kumar has built a wonderful world. The old couple's lives and livelihood revolve around their friendships. These are symbolic of the cosmopolitan world that the speakers were born in. From the references to the Kerala People's Arts Club theatrical movement, which popularized communism in the state, to the presence of the Muslim maulvi neighbour and the Anglo-Indian sweeper, the film contains a colourful mix of culture and languages. The speakers in the film are not only symbolic of a way of life going extinct, but also practices.

These practices find their best expression in the visual and aural aesthetic of the film. The first notes of MS Subbulakshmi's 'Suprabhatam' or Mohammed Rafi singing the alaap for 'O Duniya Ke Rakhwale' remind us of the evocative power of sound. Arundhati, as the audience surrogate, slowly realizes the precious nature of these speakers. They are milestones of an era that few care about anymore. 

The screenplay by TK Rajeev Kumar and KM Venugopal underlines this emotional conflict with subtle commentary about the 2005 law that banned the use of loudspeakers in Kerala as well as the struggle of members of a minority to provide proof of residence 50-60 years after settling in the country. And the writers pull this off without being preachy. 

With Ravi Varman and Resul Pookutty being in charge of the cinematography and sound design respectively, there is little doubt as to why the film is so appealing to the senses. Even when the script occasionally feels a little self-conscious about its artistic ambitions, the technical excellence more than makes up for it. The scene where Vijay Yesudas seeks out the mike in which his father sang is one example, perhaps, of over-indulgence. The film also tends to meander towards the climax, which is disappointing. Yet, there is something to be said for its moments of beauty.

The pitter-patter of raindrops on the kolaambis, the scratch of old records and the enticing vocals of Rafi add a layer to the dialogues on the screen. Ramesh Narayanan's wonderful music and the songs 'Parayatharike Vanna Parayatharike' and 'Aarodum Parayathe Vayya' by Madhushree Naryanan stand out. 

Renji is in form as a quiet, sensitive man who cherishes his mementoes. His disappointments, love and pride are etched on his face and conveyed wonderfully. He is matched and occasionally surpassed by the sensitivity of Rohini as his wife, Sundarambal. The couple's chemistry is as sweet as it is essential.

Nithya, as stated before, plays the role of the intermediary for the audience. The actress is captivating and fits the part. It is the supporting roles though that keep you glued to the screen. Dileesh Pothan as the bank manager who is a classical music aficionado, the late P Balachandran as Kamal Pasha and Suresh Kumar as Varghese add great depth with their performances. These characters are the lifeblood of the story. 

The film was premiered at the 2019 edition of the International Film Festival of India and took its time arriving on OTT.  It would be an understatement to say that the world has changed since then. For a pandemic-plagued audience, trapped in the digital world, the sound of an LP emanating from old loudspeakers and a peek into the history of a neighbourhood feel magical. 

Kolaambi is being streamed on the MTalkie OTT platform. 


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