Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham is writer/director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s latest after Android Kunjappan Version 5.25. Produced by actor Nivin Pauly, the film is a comedy drama with an ensemble cast featuring Grace Antony and Nivin himself in the leads.
The film opens to a disappointed Haripriya (Grace Antony) discussing her failing marriage with Shivan (Sudheesh). Priya, a former television serial actor, we gather, married Pavithran (Nivin Pauly), a junior artiste and aspiring film actor. Pavithran is distant, disinterested and absent in the relationship.
Post the marriage, he was gifted a hotel previously run by Priya’s father as dowry. Convinced that his destiny is not one that is meant to be furthered by running a small mess, he retains a portion of it for namesake and converts the rest of the space into an acting training academy.
Priya was coerced into putting her acting career on the back burner after marriage, and Pavithran brings in no significant finance to the table. The plot is set into motion when Pavithran gets Priya a gold-plated ear ring to compensate for the pair he had previously borrowed, pawned and lost. The act is an attempt to save the relationship from total collapse.
Unaware of the fact that the ear rings are not original gold, Priya flaunts them and wears them to a trip to Munnar. The couple check in to the main setting of the plot – The Hilltop Hotel, where her ear rings go missing.
Anchored on the Malayalam poet and satirist Kunchan Nambiar’s lines, the title Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham (Wealth, Women, War) piggy banks on the idea that all wars in the world are either fought over gold or women. The plot follows this disposition, but also attempts to subvert the narrative through interventions packed with absurd, surreal wit, and exaggerated character arcs, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s treatment of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Spoiler alert: The rest of this review contains plot spoilers
Women, gold, and sisterhood
If one were to employ the gender lens, at many junctures, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham comes across as a dig on the collusion of the male dominated arms of the State and society in manipulating women into the silent acceptance of their fate. Once the ear rings are lost, the hotel management is alerted, CCTV visuals perused and all occupants are questioned. Pavithran participates in these events, pretending to be worried but knowing fully well that the ear rings are not pure gold.
In the process, he gaslights Priya by criticising her greed for gold and insinuating that the theft occurred due to her carelessness. He also makes dissaproving blanket statements about how women in general prioritise gold. When Priya is livid at the irresponsibility of the Hotel staff, Pavithran is quick to intervene and ‘teach’ her how to be civil. He constantly reprimands her to not ‘be dramatic, as if enacting one of her serial episodes’. All these jibes are made to cover up his own deceit and ascribe blame on Priya, one of patriarchy’s most successful methods of ensuring that women downplay their legitimate rage and self-expression.
After a certain point, Priya assumes power of her own narrative and opens up about her life and career post marriage. She calls Pavithran out for his irresponsibility and lack of effort. Through Priya, the film comments on how women are driven to the end of their wit and sanity in marriages by thrusting the burden of gendered expectations on them, with no accountability or support from their male counterparts.
In most situations, liquifiable assets like gold are often the only tangible security women have access to. Wanting to have possession and control over gold is also a survival mechanism for most women who otherwise have no source of income. The film discusses how patriarchy successfully disarms women by systemic assignment of control over their lives and assets to men and gaslights them into believing that they are not supposed to claim any of it back.
Thus, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham subverts the age-old dictum that it is women and wealth that cause conflicts, by actively questioning the role of the men who use this as motivation to start wars and the state and social hierarchies that legitimise such wreckage.
A very tender, emphatic moment in Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham pans out when Shalini (Vincy Aloshious), the receptionist at the hotel picks an argument with Priya. The two women have a verbal duel, both frustrated with the occurrences that have been brewing. Priya insists on ransacking Shalini’s bag to make sure she is not the thief. On scrutiny, she finds a pack of sanitary napkins and suddenly forms a solidarity with Shalini. She instantly figures out why Shalini may have been irritable, and thereafter, the two women back each other up in sisterhood.
This is an endearing moment of experiential kinship, a bond between two individuals who mirror each other’s physical, emotional and social destinies. The scene also reminds us why female solidarities are radical and extremely necessary in a society that profits from pitting women against each other.
Political correctness: The art, artist and the State
From the onset, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham is a film that rides on its dialogues and situational subversion to create humour. It attempts to follow the absurd comedy genre by juxtaposing the illogical with the relatable. ‘My name is Manaf Khan, and I am not a terrorist’, is perhaps one of the dialogues that will mark this film by reference in the time to come. Manaf Khan (played by Rajesh Abraham) is one of the cleaning staff at the hotel. Through him, the script comments on the targeting of minorities and questions inherent biases that our State and conscience bear.
The novelist’s character (played by Joy Mathew) is also a very pointed take on the place of art and the artist in the society, especially when it comes to practicing the values they preach. Similar is the case with most other characters, who become caricatures intended for a larger satirical critique of the present-day politics.
Despite, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham seems to run out of organic humour too soon into the narrative, and labours to hold together its premise. The political reflections also defeat themselves when each counter argument is then flattened out by another condescending perspective. For example, though Manaf is used to aptly critisice the majoritarian gaze of the minority, the character is also stereotyped later on, making it difficult to gauge the exact political position the film intends to occupy.
Similarly, though Priya is given space to expose the problematic power hierarchy of marriages, she is not intimated about the truth of the value of the ear rings, and she continues to trust Pavithran, thus facilitating the maintenance of his power in the relationship. The digs that the film makes at patriarchy are rendered futile by the plot which does nothing to change status quo, other than merely pretending to question it.
Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham is packaged in an interesting format and the Grand Budapest Hotel-esque ambience amplifies the possibility of absurd humour working itself out in the plot. But the story gets caught in the lack of its own imagination and often seems to rely on the intellectual labour of the viewer to make itself funny. Political satires require a heightened involvement from the audience to be communicative, but Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham is plagued by the paucity of ideas for even the most sagacious viewer to work with.
Though reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and the recent Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham feels like experiencing a power outage while on a roller coaster ride that one embarked on with great excitement. Nonetheless, it is a film that deserves to be watched for its effort to be political at a time when most films strive hard to safely pander to the majoritarian, mass-hero-glorification-hungry galleries.
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