JAN.E.MAN (2021) (MALAYALAM)

One-line review: A warm quilt expertly woven with all shades of emotions.

Jan E. Man, with its threadbare plot and non-star cast, was initially filmed for streaming platforms. But the film’s scope grew during shooting, and the producers worried that without any big stars, Janeman would not get the eyeballs it deserved on the streaming platforms. So, confident in their film, they took the chance of releasing it in the theaters: a fortuitous decision because  Janeman became one of the biggest hits of 2021, mainly through word-of-mouth publicity.  

The film’s main event is a birthday party organized by Joymon (Basil Joseph) for “himself.” He is a narcissist but lonely and clinically depressed, working as a nurse in snowy Alberta, Canada. Determined not to spend his thirtieth birthday alone, he flies to India to celebrate it with his childhood friends. The problem is that none of his friends like the pompous Joymon. Only one of them, Dr. Faizal (Ganapathi), takes pity on him and agrees to join the celebrations. But Faizal decides to hold the party in his best friend Sampath’s (Arjun Asokan) house to make things easier for himself. Sampath is livid because he hates Joymon but eventually gives in. After all, it was just an inconvenience for one night, plus there will be plenty of free drinks supplied by Joymon.     

But the same morning Joymon arrives from Canada, Sampath’s neighbor, an older man, suddenly dies. Although Sampath’s mother says it is a bad idea to celebrate a birthday when a neighbor has died, Sampath insists the party must go on. Both families don’t speak to each other because of a bitter falling out between the two sons in the past, which led to the dead man’s son having to leave the house. But no one anticipates the extent of the festivities planned by Joymon, including an event planner who lights up the terrace and plays loud music. And then the guests (invited by Joymon without their knowledge) begin showing up, including a TV star, a local don, and Sampath’s school crush (this melts Sampath’s resistance). 

Add to this the tensions when the son of the dead man, Monichan (Balu Varghese), a Heathcliff-like unkempt character, returns for the funeral. His arrival ignites old emotions between the houses, especially since the dead man’s relatives consider the loud birthday celebrations next door inappropriate (the final straw is a stunning display of indifference by Joymon that leaves even his friends stunned). 

Jan E. Man’s laughs and tears come from the various encounters among characters, both within each house and across homes. Finally, in the last scenes, all the characters come face to face culminating in a surprising and satisfying ending. The relevance of the film’s title is also revealed then, although it could also mean Jan (birth is jananam in Malayalam) and Man (death is maranam in Malayalam).

It’s hard to believe that Janeman’s directed by a rookie, Chidambaram, so assured is his touch. The movie is also exquisitely scripted with much attention to detail. The film expertly switches among emotions; even the darkest scenes are infused with unexpected comedy, and the funniest scenes with pathos. And none of it seems forced. The film is immensely rewatchable because each of its large cast delivers a knockout performance, irrespective of their screen time. The casting director deserves some applause for assembling such an assortment of talented characters with unforgettable faces. Jan E Man is also an intelligent film; for example, one of the memorable scenes in the movie is when Joymon, in a rare moment of self-reflection, opens up about his depression and social issues to the most unlikely person: the dead man’s son, Monichan. But soon, you realize how everything Joymon says also applies to Monichan; we understand both characters through the same lines. 
     
As the central character Joymon, Basil Joseph pulls off the tough job of making the audience like him despite his narcissism. His endearing smile is crucial in keeping his likeability intact. Credit to the writers for not making Joymon’s arc predictable. Although he has some reflective moments, he continues to be selfish, perhaps one degree less.

Balu Varghese adeptly plays Joymon’s counterpoint as the wayward son of the deceased father. Balu’s roughness is merely a scab on his deep wounds; the film ingeniously reveals them through a scene with his sisters. Seasoned actor-director Lal plays the deceased man’s brother with aplomb despite tethering on the brink of overdoing the crying. 

Other memorable characters include Abhiram Radhakrishnan as the wily event manager, Arjun Asokan as the wheeler-dealer Sampath, and Gilu Joseph as the “sister” sister. Harish Pengan makes your flesh crawl as the annoying neighbor, while Ganga Meera, as Sampath’s feisty mother, provides the much-needed female relief in this male-dominated film. Sarath Sabha mesmerized the Kerala audiences with his turn as the annoying yet supremely loyal goon. Even the late Sajeed Pattalam is unforgettable as the cake delivery man, despite having only a couple of lines. But the film’s spine that gives it its sweet core is Ganapathi, who plays Dr. Faizal with the perfect blend of youthful abandon and selfishness that cannot quite overcome his inherent niceness. Drinking is an integral part of the film, but anyone from Kerala can relate to the role alcohol plays in daily life there.

The cinematography by rookie Vishnu Thandassery is excellent. Since most of the action takes place at night, lights have to be cleverly used to create the contrast between the two homes. Bijibal’s music shadows the film and lifts it at the right moments when the film wants to emphasize a point. Two old classic Malayalam songs are bright back to this movie with nostalgic results; they couldn’t be a better fit. The film would not be this slick without the expert editing of veteran Kiran Das, who seems to be a lucky charm for even small films to become big hits. 

Eventually, Jan E Man is a confident labor of love that makes you reach out and hug it. 

Why watch it?  To feel lighter after engaging all your emotions. 

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