Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan concocts a rural noir involving a devoted family man and his misguided get-rich scam.
Outsized ambition transforms a modest family into virtual outcasts in Once Again, a cautionary tale framed as an unusually understated crime drama. After debuting last year at Toronto and playing the recent Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s latest feature could go on to draw further attention in niche markets or via digital formats.
Struggling Purushothaman (Dileep) is well known around his small south Indian city not only for his chronic unemployment, but also as the target of frequent jokes and snide comments, mainly because his wife Devi (Kavya Madhavan) singlehandedly supports their household of five. Despite a university accounting degree, he fumbles one interview after another, coming home dejected to Devi, whose patience is wearing thin, since this situation has been ongoing since their marriage eight years previous and their meager income is stretched to the limit.
Relief arrives in the form of an employment visa to work for a major company in Dubai, so Purushothaman departs with promises of imminent support. He dutifully sends home his earnings after starting the job and Devi and the family are soon enjoying much improved circumstances. Their newfound prosperity isn’t lost on numerous relatives and townsfolk, who eagerly drop by their house seeking handouts of one kind or another.
Once Purushothaman returns home on leave, he’s positively inundated with requests, but his mind is on other things. Taking clues from his favorite Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s hatched a scheme that will make him the richest man in town if he can pull off what’s shaping up as an audacious caper. Recruiting his uncle and retired-schoolteacher father-in-law with promises of unexpected wealth, Purushothaman puts his plan in motion, but like so many poorly conceived crimes, things quickly go awry. Whether he can get the plan back on track before it completely unravels and exposes him will determine not only his own future, but the fate of his family as well.
Malayalam regional cinema vet Gopalakrishnan takes a stealth approach in Once Again, opening with a feint toward a domestic melodrama and then craftily overlaying a noirish narrative in the latter half of the film. It’s an inspired tonal shift that could have paid off brilliantly, but it quickly comes undone after some rather inattentive plotting in several crucial scenes. The third act, separated from the principal action by 15 years, further strains credibility before circling back to the opening scenes that focus on a mysterious death being investigated by local police.
Low-key leading man Dileep makes a better householder than a scheming fraudster, but also displays a bumbling charm that lends his early scenes a bit of understated humor. As his long-suffering wife, Madhavan doesn’t really get a chance to shine until the latter half of the film, once she’s assumed her place as de-facto head of the family.
Gopalakrishnan favors a naturalistic style, which is appropriate for the early scenes, but comes up short when more creative techniques are required once a darker tone is introduced. The insertion of generic stock footage from Gulf locations, which doesn’t even attempt to include Purushothaman, and a rather bizarre climax to the plot further destabilize the film’s initially well-laid foundation.
Cast: Dileep, Kavya Madhavan, Indrans, Nedumudi Venu, Vijayaraghavan, Baby Akshara, Lalita
Director-writer: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Producers: Baby Mathew, Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Director of photography: M.J. Radhakrishnan
Editor: B. Ajithkumar
Venue: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Not rated, 121 minutes