Mathukutty Xavier’s Mili is a faithful remake of his Malayalam-language 2019 film Helen and all the better for it. About the only new detail in the Hindi version is a bunch of pleasant songs and a background score by AR Rahman.
Before it slides into do-or-die mode, the screenplay by Xavier, Alfred Kurian Joseph and Noble Babu Thomas sets up the two relationships that define Dehradun resident Mili (Janhvi Kapoor). The first is with her widower father Niranjan (Manoj Pahwa), to whom she is devoted. The other is with her boyfriend Sameer (Sunny Kaushal), whom her father knows nothing about.
For reasons not clear, Mili has abandoned nursing and is working as a lowly cashier at a take-out in a mall. Her boss Sudhir (Vikram Kochhar) is rude and exploitative, but his behaviour pales before that of the odious inspector Satish (Anurag Arora).
After Mili gets trapped in a freezer in the restaurant and her whereabouts are unknown for several hours, Niranjan and Sameer set out to look for her. Satish’s obnoxiousness is both an example of police excesses as well as a ploy to stretch out Mili’s plight.
Xavier’s script deftly dots the Is and crosses the Ts. No detail is wasted, whether it is Niranjan’s smoking habit or the convict at the police station who is frequently described as a desperado.
One cameo is by one of Hindi cinema’s coolest cats. The other guest, who offers further proof of Mili’s innate humanity even in a life-threatening crisis, isn’t even human.
Ranjith Ambady’s outstanding make-up (which won him a National Film Award for Helen) transforms Mili from a fresh-faced young woman into a candidate for hypothermia. Shivering in low temperatures, affected by frost-bite and with no help in sight, Mili is a vision as she struggles to stay alive.
Apurwa Sondhi’s production design updates M Bava’s stellar efforts in converting the freezer room into a battleground. The journey from Malayalam to Hindi is largely intact, down to the false alarms and the denouement that takes too long. Having hooked us early on and cleverly strung us for the bulk of 129 nail-biting minutes, Xavier can’t resist playing with our feelings just a bit longer.
The Hindi version lowers its risk in one important respect. The inter-faith romance that upsets Helen’s father in the original film has been replaced with a relatively safer option: Mili and Sameer are from different castes.
The human touch that raises the stakes in a routine survival drama is present in Manoj Pahwa’s moving performance as Mili’s father, Sunny Kaushal’s stolid concern for Mili, and Janhvi Kapoor’s doughty turn as the heroine. The original film depended strongly on Malayalam actor Anna Ben’s talent for evoking purity of heart and strength of character.
Kapoor too infuses Mili with innocence and vulnerability. Both these qualities, also present in Kapoor’s performances in Gunjan Saxena and Good Luck Jerry, steer Mili through its sub-zero highs and minor lows.