Every hospital is a hotbed of stories. It’s a place where even the calmest person is likely to be tense – either about the fate of a loved one or their own, either about rising bills or potential caregiving challenges on their return home. Multiply that a zillion times in a government-run facility in India where doctors are overworked, infrastructure is over-stretched and the poor gather, and what you have is a space waiting to be turned into a film.
Writer-director Ahammed Kabeer – who earlier made June (2019) starring Rajisha Vijayan – situates Madhuram (Sweet) in a hospital in Kerala where Sabu (played by Joju George who is also one of the film’s producers), Kevin (Arjun Ashokan), Ravi (Indrans) and Thajuddheen (Fahim Safar) meet. This being Kerala, the place is not in the decrepit state that dominates the public image of government hospitals here in the north, and these four men – each one the relative of a patient – are from differing social classes. Nevertheless, the financially well-off among them would prefer the poshness the private sector offers, but we are told that Thaju’s father is a miser who, hence, insists on a sarkari institution and Kevin’s mother is being treated by a respected doctor on the rolls.
Along with the others, they camp in the crowded waiting room for patients’ relatives.
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The scenario is unique to a socialist country, the specifics more so to Communist-influenced Kerala. This combined with the enticing opening shots of cooking and the natural presentation of everyday hospital affairs fills Madhuram with early promise.
The story by Ahammed Khabeer, turned into a screenplay by Ashiq Aimar and Fahim Safar, initially lives up to that promise. The family-like bonhomie among patients’ relatives who have been at the hospital for a while, their familiarity with the staff and the way some have almost laid down roots there are at first fascinating.
Details of Sabu’s history with his wife Chitra (Shruti Ramachandran) and Kevin’s relationship with his wife Cherry (Nikhila Vimal) are revealed in small doses that keep them interesting.
It doesn’t take long though for the intimacy among virtual strangers to start feeling occasionally exaggerated and the absence of unpleasantness in the large group in that sprawling waiting hall to feel unreal. The worst thing anyone among them does is monopolise the sole plug point.
In flashbacks, we see that before her marriage Chitra lived on Gujarati Street in Kochi and was involved in her family’s pappadam-making business. Sabu is a Malayali who was a chef’s assistant on a ship when they met.
I enjoyed the social reality that led to the couple bonding over her interest in biryani, and love the way DoP Jithin Stanislaus has shot her (those large eyes! that pretty jewellery! Sameera Saneesh’s costumes! goodness!) and her eating. She consumes a plate of biryani with devotion and watching her do so is a sensual experience.
Pretty soon, however, the Sabu-Chitra equation turns as saccharine as the syrup-soaked jalebis he dishes out.
In the portrayal of her confidence versus his shyness, in its refusal to side with Kevin in his tension with Cherry, no doubt Madhuram means to be progressive. It reveals its conservative core though when it stigmatises divorce and single people in general through these lines spoken by Sabu: “Haven’t you seen unmarried people and those who lead a lonely life after divorce? No one remembers them after they are dead. No one knows anything! I can’t be like that.” That people in the real world hold such regressive views is no secret, but to have a protagonist in a film actually say this in black and white with no one countering his point of view reveals all you need to know about Madhuram’s supposed liberalism. (Eye roll)
The non-conformism and role reversals depicted are unusual for Malayalam cinema (and Indian cinema as a whole), but it needs to be said that in the case of one of the primary characters, the writers make a huge deal of housework and care-giving by a man that is completely taken for granted when wives and mothers routinely do it in real life.
What works best in Madhuram is what comes naturally to it – the inclusion of Hindu, Muslim and Christian characters sans fanfare. This is the sort of thing that Malayalam cinema does without thinking twice about it, unlike its northern counterpart, Bollywood, where minority religious communities are rarely featured unless to make an overt point about secularism, communal harmony and/or how wonderful/awful “they” are in them-and-us territory.
Ahammed Kabheer has a lot cooking in this film, but it works only in parts. The introductory passages give way to surface treatment of an uncommon setting and, ultimately, the people in it. Most of the cast are as good as the writing allows them to be. Madhuram also often interprets its title literally and is too sugary for my palate. What lingers in the memory far more than the characters and their storylines are those delicious food shots.
Madhuram has some moving moments here and there, but the idea of the film is far more attractive than the film itself.
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