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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Elder One’

Geetu Mohandas' second directorial feature tells a potent if complicated story sometimes confused by gratuitously hyperactive editing.

Nivin Pauly, Sanjana Dipu, Shashank Arora, Sobhita Dhulipala, Roshan Mathew, Dileesh Pothan, Harish Khanna, Sujith Shankar, Melissa Raju Thomas, Omkaar. (Malayalan, Hindi dialogue)

1 hour 52 minutes

Actor-turned-writer-director Geetu Mohandas’ second feature, “The Elder One,” is a considerably busier enterprise than her first, 2014’s well-received road drama “Liar’s Dice.” Where that essentially two-character piece was linear, low-key and leisurely, this follow-up tells a more complicated tale involving flashbacks and hidden identities that is unnecessarily confused by a too-frenetic editorial approach.

A less flashy presentation would have heightened the emotional impact. Still, this eventful story involving lost family connections and Mumbai’s criminal underground is nonetheless a handsome, accomplished piece of work. Its gay angle should help access some commercial placements after festival travel.

What at least visually appears to be a fairly idyllic life for adolescent Mulla (Santana Dipu) on a picturesque isle in the Lakshadweep archipelago is in fact rather bleak. Sans parents (they both died), our protagonist has been sloughed off on a fisherman relative who treats his ward like an unwanted burden. When Mulla can take it no more, he steals his uncle’s boat — barely surviving the storm he rides straight into. Nonetheless, Mulla does manage to get to Mumbai. His goal there is to find the elder brother who left home under mysterious circumstances some years ago, and hasn’t been heard from since.

The big city is a frightening and dangerous place for this naive teen, who promptly flees the orphanage (and its abusive staff) he’s thrown into. While there, however, he makes a friend, and once outside is able to locate and get some grudging shelter from that boy’s prostitute mother (Sobhita Dhulipala). Still, he’s constantly at risk of robbery and/or beatings from other slum youth, soon getting abducted outright. It’s expected that imposing, bearded junkie Bhai (Malayan thesp Nivin Pauly) will sell Mulla — to just what purpose we’re not sure — once he’s been “tamed.” Yet when caught making an another escape attempt, the boy blurts out a name that triggers memories in his suddenly dumbstruck captor, who it turns out is also from “the island.”

The ensuing long flashback unfolds in slower, more direct fashion, a relief after the somewhat jumbled prior progress. (The editing is so hyperactive that things like Mulla’s kidnapping only make sense after they happen — in the moment, they’re presented too hectically for viewers to be sure what’s going on.) This stretch is a sensitively handled gay love story that begins brewing when a once-bullied deaf boy who’d left for Bombay years ago returns to the island in his manhood (Roshan Mathew) in order to undergo an arranged marriage. He’d rather not, however, particularly once reunited with a former playmate turned strapping adult. Their mutual attraction does not escape larger notice, however, prompting a tragedy that will have repercussions well into the future.

Once this midsection has run its course, the film returns to the present time, with secrets Bhai and Mulla were separately keeping now revealed. But their newfound bond is imperiled by the surrounding criminal elements (particularly Shashank Arora as duplicitous flunky Salim), leading to a climactic car chase and violence.

The discretion Mohandas brings to the gay romance also helps tamp down the more melodramatic aspects of the present-tense action, which are almost Dickensian. But again, this last chapter (save a brief coda) is partially undermined by short-attention-spanned cutting that at times obscures what ought to be relatively straightforward events.

The film benefits from strong performances, particularly by the male leads in the flashback. It also sports flavorful cinematography (Rajeev Ravi) and production design (Abid T.P.). But a story with this much woe on its plate needs to slow down more often to let us fully absorb the cruel turns of fate, and “The Elder One” is often in a confounding rush.

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Toronto Film Review: 'The Elder One'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 9, 2019. Running time: 112 MIN. (Original title: “Moothon”)

Production: (India) A JAR Pictures and Mini Studio production in association with Good Bad Films. (Int'l sales: Mini Studio, Channai.) Producers: Anurag Kashyap, Alan McAlex, Vinod Kumar, Ajay G. Rai.

Crew: Director-writer: Geetu Mohandas. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Rajeev Ravi. Editors: Ajithkumar B., Kiran Das. Music: Sagar Desai.

With: Nivin Pauly, Sanjana Dipu, Shashank Arora, Sobhita Dhulipala, Roshan Mathew, Dileesh Pothan, Harish Khanna, Sujith Shankar, Melissa Raju Thomas, Omkaar. (Malayalan, Hindi dialogue)

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