Despite rough-hewn elements and devices, Satish Menon’s first feature, “Bhavum: Emotions of Being,” aims high in its attempt to marry traditional Malayalam cinema — with its strong literary roots — with contempo social issues for intermittently potent results. Winner of top awards among this year’s entries in competitions in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, the drama is conversant with local politics and cutting-edge national topics, although Menon has been based in Chicago for years. A probable mid-level B.O. success with regional audiences, “Bhavum” may be tapped in the West by scrappy fests.
While critics and Menon himself have already noted his tale’s ties to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” there is just as much of a link to Ibsen’s dramas of private and political angst, from the portrait of an imploding marriage to a sub-plot involving poisoned public water sources. And like the typical Ibsen couple, university literature professor Lata (Jyothirmayee) and her newspaper-editor husband Joy (Murali Menon) are introduced as a happy pair, living an upwardly mobile lifestyle in the coastal Kerala town of Cochin. To compound the uptempo mood, Lata is four months’ pregnant.
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Bliss proves fleeting when Lata’s older sister, Subhadra (Mita Vasisht), unexpectedly enters their lives. Vasisht comes on screen full of shifty glances and thick stares, rather crudely telegraphing that no good is going to result from Subhadra’s presence.
Outside their home, Joy and Lata work in very different worlds, which Menon suggests may be the deeper cause for their eventual alienation. While Lata is futilely trying to make her students think about the ethical meaning of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (with an emphasis on the notion of guilt), Joy is seduced more and more by consumer products as he’s sucked into the corrupt politics (and advertisers) that drive his newspaper’s editorial content.
In Menon’s fairly schematic and ambitious script, Joy faces two dilemmas: his reluctant attraction to the beautiful but demure Subhadra, and his anger that the water company backed by his newspaper caused an environmental disaster in Kerala. Though the politics are laid on polemically and Menon appears to be struggling not to overact, this portrait of a middle-class man caught in his own multi-layered ethical drama raises “Bhavum” a few notches above the standard Indian drama.
Vasisht’s Subhadra is on the run because she is a suspect in the killing of her abusive husband, but she never becomes the sympathic character it appears she was intended to be. Jyothirmayee, however, evokes Lata’s increasing consternation as her tidy world collapses.
Camera doggedly remains at shoulder-height throughout, and a visual plainness is the rule of the day. Cutting and tech elements are a bit rough.