"You row, row and row, but it is an island you can never reach.
You walk, walk and walk, but it is an island you can never cross.”
Munroe Island, the only Malayalam film in the competition section of Jio MAMI, opens with these lines. It is a film washed in the deep green waters of the sea off Kerala, about lives that are moored and can never be moored on a small isle in Kollam.
There is a lovely, old house on that island: its rooms festooned a bit too perfectly with curios. An earthen pot is on the table, the sardines are cooked, the toddy jug is full. An old man, Achumama (Indrans), is waiting for his wayward grandson Keshu (Jason Chacko). He hasn’t been here for over a decade. And now he is coming home, carrying memories and troubles. Keshu’s father wants to take him to NIMHANS for counselling; his grandfather will have none of it. The island will cure him of his restlessness. The water that laps on the land in an antique rhythm, the blood that ties them together: could there be a greater chord, a more beautiful leash?
Munroe Island (or Mundrothuruth, as it is called in Malayalam) is about about troubled men in a perfect home with an attractive, largely silent maid Kathu (Abhija Sivakala). It is the first feature film of 50-year-old Manu (who chooses to go by only his first name). “People are stranded in their own islands in relationships,” he said. Can the grandfather and the grandson, marooned in their own islands, find each other?
Money and Manu do not go together
Manu is the first filmmaker from the famous, iconoclastic Kakkanadan family, which was prominent in the literary and artistic world of Kerala in the 1960s and '70s. He is the son of Ammini, a sister of novelist Kakkanadan, and PA Solomon, who was a Communist Party of India leader and Member of Parliament. “There was no escape from the arts, literature and politics, from cards, chess and toddy,” Manu said. “It was all there in our living room in Kollam. Those were the days of endless revolution. And we were all a bit crazy.”
That was his legacy – a living room reverberating with conversations, a night spent on one side of the chessboard and writing. Manu, who has previously made three short films, is the writer and the producer of the movie, for which he eventually sold a plot of land. “My sister suggested that,” he said. “She said, why don’t you sell some land if you are short of money for your movie?" As a result, he has begun to believe in an aphorism he devised: Manu and money don’t go together.
Like most filmmakers in Kerala, Manu is a child of the film society movement, which took art films to the furthest corners of the state. “That was my school,” he said, recalling his falling in love with European filmmakers. When he talks about Munroe Island, he brings to mind Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water – of relationships teetering on a sailboat, in the confines of water.
Munroe Island is yet to be released in theatres. “I spent weeks on water, travelling through the backwaters of Kollam, looking for the right house,” Manu said. There is a Munroe Island in Kollam, named after the 19th century British resident of Travancore, John Munroe. Only parts of the movie are shot there. The title is more a signpost to the days of Manu’s youth when he wandered in Mundrothuruth and an allusion to an island which is reportedly sinking into the water. “There was a report that said the real Munroe Island was sinking,” he said. “This island where we tie our ropes to is also going down.”
The concept of two men who cannot find each other on an island is interesting, but Munroe Island – which talks about generations and periods and certainties colliding – fails to sustain its intensity. As it ponders on what is true and false, on which of the forked path will lead to life and to the gallows, the plot becomes a little forced.
Indrans, the diminutive comedian of Malayalam cinema, leaves behind his signature laughter and gets Achumama right. But Jason Chacko looks too old for an 18-year-old and is far too inexperienced to understand the nuances of a gregarious but eccentric man who claims, without any trace of remorse, to have killed dogs and raped a young girl. The cinematography by Prathap P Nair is exceptional, as the movie meanders through the lake and the edges of land and sanity.