Caving in can be fun.

Like thousands of people in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in South India, Kerala, I, too, have been caught in the Manjummel Boys spell the last few weeks. Manjummel Boys is a smash hit Malayalam film about a real story of courage and friendship. It was playing in Bellmore PlayHouse, an hour’s train ride from Manhattan but surprisingly easy to get to. Because of all the hype, I went in with high expectations, and frankly, the film dragged on at times. But the highs in the film work, and the climax was cathartic. More importantly, I could now legitimately join the bandwagon since I had seen the film. Two weeks later, I am still searching daily for new updates on the film’s journey (it’s set to become the highest-grossing Malayalam film overseas) and interviews.  

The film is the story of a group of working-class boys from Manjummel, Kerala, who, in 2006, went on a trip to a popular hill station, Kodaikanal, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. On the last day of the trip, the boys explore the restricted and dangerous Gunaa Caves, and one of them, Subash, falls into one of its deep crevices. The crevice is part of the local folklore, and that section of the cave is called Devil’s Kitchen since mist rises through it like smoke, and many have died in it through accidents, murders, or suicides. No bodies have ever been found, and no one has emerged alive. The boys rush to the local cops, who show no sympathy since the accident happened in a restricted area and is a no-rescue zone (no obligation to rescue). Plus, the cops are sure Subash is dead.  

But his friends refuse to give up and keep calling his name. Shortly after, they hear Subash’s feeble groan in response. The cops are now compelled to help, but no one among them is willing to go down the cave to rescue Subash. One of the boys, Saji, volunteers to take on the task and daringly rescues his friend. These were pre-technology times; all they had were ropes, and going down it and carrying a person back requires immense strength. Although he wasn’t aware of it, Saji, a factory worker, had the core strength for this dangerous task. The other boys also play a crucial role in the rescue by pulling them up (their pastime of playing tug of war comes in handy here). The boys then quietly returned home, and Subash, who was severely bruised physically and emotionally after the fall, took months to recover. The people of Manjummel and neighboring areas knew of the incident only when one of the local drivers spotted an article about it while traveling to Tamil Nadu and reported it after returning to Manjummel. The incident then became well known and Saji also received a bravery award.   

Since then, many directors have expressed interest in making a film about the story but backed off when they realized the enormity of the task. One of the film’s producers, who is from the area, brought the idea to the attention of the director, Chidambaram, who first made a documentary about it by interviewing all the boys separately (most of them still live in the area and continue to be good friends). Once a solid script was in place, actor and producer Soubin Shahir came on board; they realized that doing the job well would require a replica of the cave, which Ajayan Challissery expertly built. The real life and reel life Manjummel boys worked as a team to make the film happen. The film is now a phenomenon and continues to roll on like a juggernaut. It was already breaking records in Kerala but then spread like wildfire to neighboring Tamil Nadu, where films are almost a religion. Reports indicate that the audience’s applause during the climax is deafening. 

Why am I obsessed with the Manjummel Boys phenomenon? For me, the film’s unprecedented success also illustrates some hard truths about success and life. For example, the director Chidambaram is now being hailed as a phenomenon although he is only two films old (his good looks and erudition help). But he’s not an overnight success; much of his education has been on film sets, where he has assisted eminent directors and cinematographers. He says along the way, he also became a writer, which is not surprising given his book-filled childhood. His father, Satish Poduval, says Chidambaram’s gifts as a kid mainly were books, and he read extensively on politics and philosophy, which explains his layered scripts with philosophical underpinnings. His father, a long-term assistant director and documentary filmmaker, is reveling in his sons’ success (Chidambaram’s younger brother, Ganapathy, an actor, is getting a lot of buzz as the casting director for Manjummel Boys). The firebrand father is having his own moment responding to some right-wing critics of the film. Similarly, the veteran Tamil actor Vijay Muthu broke down on television, grateful for the opportunity given to him by a Malayalam film since the Tamil industry had ignored him. 

As Hamilton says, you never know who will tell your story. One of the coups de tat of the film is its brilliant use of a famous Tamil song in its climax. The song is from the film Gunaa starring veteran actor Kamalahasan, about a kidnapped girl falling in love with her kidnapper, who hides her in the same cave, now known as Gunaa Caves, after the film. The film didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was released since it was in the same year as another outright blockbuster, Dalapathy, just as the Coen Brothers cult classic, Miller’s Crossing, got overshadowed by Goodfellas. Manjummel Boys brilliantly places the romantic song from Gunaa in the climax, with every line precisely choreographed, so the song about divine love is now an ultimate friendship song. The song by legendary composer Illayaraja, with lyrics by the poet Vaali and sung by S. Janaki and Kamalahasan, is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. Similarly, the multi-faceted actor Kamalahasan, is seeing a cementing of his cult status. He was instrumental in getting the film Gunaa made, and the Manjummel Boys crew is in awe of how they pulled it off thirty-three years ago with no equipment or safety nets; director Chidambaram says only a film crazy man like Kamalahasan could have done it. 

The film’s real architect is the producer and actor Soubin Shahir, who has established himself as a force to reckon with and is known for not doing anything easy. His first directorial venture, the superb Parava, was about racing pigeons. He recalls his producer Anwar Rasheed’s patience as they went about their extensive prep training the pigeons. Shahir says his only goal when producing Manjummel Boys was to make the film he wanted to see, so he was willing to invest in the sets (which cost more than the actors’ fees). Director Chidambaram says Sahir’s brief to him was that people should clap through their tears at the climax, and the film has more than achieved that. 

Ultimately, the film’s appeal is that it is an ode to friendship based on a real story. It brings back memories of trips taken with friends and sets new friendship goals. My MBA group fondly recalled our trip to Kodaikanal thirty years back and our adventures of being chased by some local vendors. People are also responding to real-life heroes, especially in Tamil Nadu, which is usually known for its larger-than-life superstars (people are willing to die for their idols and even build temples for them). The real Manjummel boys are a group of blue-collar workers who had to brave the challenges independently with no money or connections. The real-life boys recall how the cops fined almost all their money, leaving them with just enough to buy gas to return home. As a result, they took the injured Subash home in their van since they did not have money to pay for an ambulance.   

It is satisfying to see the real-life Manjummel boys having their moment in the sun; they are the toast of every TV channel. They come across as interesting men who want to have some fun and do not shy away from the attention. It helps that their reel-life characters were played not by superstars but solid character actors, minimizing the differences in persona between the real and reel-life boys. 

The film is also about real-life friendships among the cast and crew. For example, it stars three accomplished directors, Soubin, Khalid Rahman, and Jean Lal, with several hits under their belts. Many have noted the long list of thank-you credits before the film begins, indicating the camaraderie in the Malayalam film industry. Most heartening is how the film has broken the language barriers and prejudices between the people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One of my cousins in India said jokingly that you can only talk to a Tamilian these days after first discussing Manjummel Boys. While the big-budget Tamil films have always been popular in Kerala, it’s the first time the reverse has happened at such a large scale. Director Chidambaram deserves credit for his sensitivity, especially in the scenes of police brutality that were left out, and for showing graffiti of a famous Tamil film star’s fan association.  

Chidambaram cleverly introduces the concept of religion by showing Subash’s arc from an atheist to a god (the locals consider him God since he’s the only one to emerge alive after a fall into the cave).  Another master stroke by Chidambaram is overcoming the lack of female characters in a boy trip by putting Subash’s mother center stage. Despite her short role, she’s the film’s anchor; the boys make a do-or-die rescue because they cannot imagine facing Subash’s single mother without her son. Her character’s arc is as powerful as the climax. 

The film also boasts top-notch technicians, including cinematographer Shyju Khalid, who is highly selective about his work and whose name draws others like moths to a light bulb. Music director Sushin Shyam included a meaningful rap song by the artist Vedan that’s becoming an anthem. The music also captures the sounds of the cave with a unique instrument built for the sound. Director Chidambaram says the sound design was the toughest because the dialogues had to be adjusted for the depth of the cave. Ajayan Chalissery’s superb set design created the caves realistically with flora, fauna, and trash flowing into them. The real Manjummel boys say they had goosebumps walking into the set. Vivek Harshan’s seamless editing is critical in maintaining the film’s tempo. Part of my pride is that these technicians from the tiny state of Kerala will now be mainstream with this film.  

Some stories are destined to be told and received; the real boys had long given up any hope their story would be known beyond Manjummel, while now Manjummel is a household name. Director Chidambaram’s name will open doors for him after just two movies; will he sustain his success? He has a level head by saying you should approach every film as your first. The film has revived many careers and shone a light on new faces, but the vagaries of the film industry will be constant in their futures. As with anything popular, opposing voices also arise; a right-wing writer slammed the film as glorifying drunken vandals who had no business being in the cave. While people have abused him for elitism, he has a point, although that does not distract from the boys’ friendship or daring.

As far as the Manjummel Boys fever goes, the makers have enough trivia to keep the fans hooked. With the film raking in the moolah, people ask the boys if they will receive a share. In a recent interview, Subash says he’s taken a break from his work as a construction worker since people always want selfies, and he may not always be in clean clothes. The boys said they didn’t have any contract and didn’t do it for the money. I couldn’t help thinking how different it would have been in the US; they would have contractual rights for “their story.” I hope the public will be as frenzied in demanding the real Manjummel boys get a share of the profits as they have been about the film.  

Friendships, destiny (and fair compensation) always stay in style. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *