By Salini Senthil
A lack of outrageous fanfare before the release seems to be the modern indicator of silently well-made, small-budget independent movies, in our current time and age. After a silent 2018 made silent waves through theatres to my heartwarming appreciation (i was not a fan of the triumphs The Kerala story saw in the BO), this week it was DDM. Filled with newcomers and obvious indications of a small-time movie with large ambitions, Daredevil Mustafa is made with clarity of what it wants to speak.
Choosing the genre of lighthearted fun and frolic, the writers and makers of DDM unhesitantly showcase a social commentary on the communal issues plaguing our land and the issues therein. Set in a small village in the heart of Karnataka, we get an intimate view of how simple acts can seemingly disrupt the harmony of the land. The decision to showcase the story in depth, with ample screen time for the plethora of 6 characters, intimate close-ups and wonderful writing creates magic in simple moments and builds a close rapport with the story for the viewer.
Based on the short story by the author/poet K P Poornachandra Tejaswi, we are shown the village in a new state of Karnataka throbbing with an obvious Hindu/Muslim divide. An act of interreligious elopement sets the tensions high. But instead of taking the path of high drama, we enter the cracking classroom of first year college students(the current 11th class?). As we get acquainted with Iyengari, Shankar, Kumara, Seenu, Rama Mani et al – a completely Hindu classroom, characterized with unabashed caste names and markers, a gentle shocker for those used to the anonymity and subtlety cautiously employed in Tamil cinema.
An entry of a new student, that too a Muslim one(the titular Jamal Adbhula Mustaffa Hussain, played by a wonderfully handsome Shishira Baikady), is received as one would normally expect. As an UFO has landed and an alien with 8 limbs has walked straight to the last bench. Thus, begins the comedic drama, with scenes written and cut to precision, each conveying what they seek to.
And just as one settles in the seat expecting a mostly message movie extolling how Hindus and Muslims live can live in peace and coexist, we have our expectations subverted. While the unity in diversity is the major theme of this endeavour, we get glimpses of small-time corruption, a love story with a female gaze, an unexpected cricket showdown and subtle scenes calling out male chauvinism.
The story moves with a steady pace of drama and comedy. We get lovely scenes that breathe and give insights into the 6 teenagers who drive the story forward. We see them in the classroom but never studying. The movie nails the characteristic of the young adults, who mimic and thoughtlessly regurgitate what has been taught and told to them. Young and inexperienced in the world, they fantasize daydreams of terrors. They act foolishly, blindly, and thoughtlessly. Only to run into the jungle and comically even contemplate suicide, when faced with repercussions for their actions.
To elucidate the pettiness of our internal strifes, we get a secular Army man, who is unseeing and unaffected by the religious tones around him(having probably seen greater woes), for he is also unaffected by outcomes of an “important” cricket match(that plays slightly overdrawn in the second half of the movie). To him, it doesn’t matter if his team loses, for he only sees that the village has united to watch and cheer together. That is cause enough to celebrate, is it not? The film doesn’t rub it on our noses. It leaves it there with a mischievous wink.
The movie peaks during their annual day celebrations. The theatre drama showcasing the bravery of the brave Mysore king, accompanied by terrific music, is wonderfully orchestrated and leaves the hall crackling with joy. Very soon, the tension brought on screen using a single egg in a Brahmin’s pocket, left one wide-eyed and breathless. The makers brilliantly employ small scenes to deliver high emotions – no mean feat. The movie also has the tender and sweet proposal moment from a girl to a boy, who challenges him to a bike race to raise his spirits after his classmates have pulled him down. I will spoil it for you. She beats him in the race, while also lifting his spirits with great camaraderie and gives him a tentative, gentle hug. In a world that chooses to showcase the lust of teenagers, the space given for the tenderness of love to breathe is heartwarming.
Mustafa doesn’t stand to represent the “Only Muslim with a Good Character” trope. Rather, he is a quiet boy who is inherently a kind and gentle human being. That is the characteristic that shines in all scenes. And that is what wins over hearts, by a few inches here, a few inches there and sometimes all at once. There are some things you can’t go through in life and not become friends, and a person handing you dates when you are starving, is one of them.
When pushed to the limits of losing his self-respect, Mustafa inflicts the first and only act of “violence” in self-defence. The scene gives the viewers a stark reminder of how we often accuse the victims/survivors/minorities of overreacting or acting out, which is absurd when the context is taken out. This is a layered movie with many metaphors and food for thought and discussion. But also a movie, when released over OTT, that one can enjoy after a hectic workday for some light-hearted fun. There lies the immense success of DDM that was made with a lot of heart, to have chosen the topic of utmost importance and handling it with the utmost sensitivity and delivering it packaged in wonderfully written entertainment.