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Smoothly blending social critique into a rollicking booze-fueled day off in the country, An Off-Day Game (Ozhivu Divasathe Kali) presents a chilling warning that the traditional Indian caste system and rigid social roles are staging a big return. While writer-director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s debut feature Six Feet High tracked a man’s inner journey to self-knowledge in a savvy blend of modernity and tradition, his second film takes a different path. Set in the tropical paradise of Kerala, this low-budget Malayalam-language indie is a harrowing exploration of group psychology. Despite some predictable longueurs, the characters’ silliness kept the audience at its Mumbai Film Festival premiere amused with laugh-out-loud moments. It lacks the exciting originality of Sasidharan’sfirst film, yet because it is such easy viewing, it should have little trouble swinging into the fest circuit.
All the dialogue is improv, delivered by a top-flight cast of theater actors who draw the audience into their inebriated antics. As they play off against each other’s weaknesses, they descend to shockingly bestial levels. The story could well have been adapted as a stage play, had the natural surroundings not played such a crucial, metaphoric role. Nature is once again distant, neutral and enigmatic, as it was in Six Feet High. The camera moves very little, as though some invisible, omniscient narrator were recording the inhumanity of the characters. The viewer, however, can’t help but cast a critical eye on events, and this is where the film’s tension develops.
On election day in liberal Kerala, red flags wave and people line up to vote. To celebrate the festive occasion, five middle-age pals agree to meet in an isolated country house deep in the woods. The plan is to drink all day and unwind. But an atmosphere of foreboding worthy of The Blair Witch Project hangs over their merrymaking.
Lead by the increasingly arrogant Dharmanna (Nishtar Sait), the party breaks out the booze and gets down to it, while TV polling news drones on in the background. As the drinking proceeds, their driver conks out in a corner and is never heard from again. Several of the men sneak off to put the moves on the lady who has come to cook for them. The threat of gang rape gives their carousing a frightening edge, but that’s not all that is happening.
After the others make fun of Dasa’s (Baiju Netto) dark skin, the tension culminates when the drunken party decides to play a children’s game in which they draw lots to become the king, the minister, the cop or the robber. While the well-tuned cast drunkenly yucks it up, things get out of hand in an unexpected finale.
Starting from a story by mystery writer Unni R., Sasidharan builds suspense all the way to the sickening climax. The natural setting has its own foreboding quality. The backwaters swirling around sunken trees and boats are said to be so deep that “even God wouldn’t know if someone was murdered here.” Though the colors are unappealingly bland, the Eden-like stillness of the location is captured by aerial shots. In complete contrast with the natural acting are the long, fixed frame shots that give the camerawork an irritating, self-conscious quality. Basil Joseph provides an orchestral score that veers from playful to scary.
Production companies: NIV Art Movies
Cast: Nisthar Sait, Baiju Netto, Girith Nair, Pradeep Kumar, Reju Pillai, Abhija Sivakala
Director: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan
Screenwriter: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan based on a story by Unni R.
Producers: Shaji Mathew, Aruna Mathew
Director of photography: Indrajith
Production design: Murukan A.
Editor: Appu N. Bhattathiri
Music: Basil Joseph
World sales: NIV Art Movies
No rating, 105 minutes