Obsession over anything is considered a negative connotation. But if we look around, there are a lot of people who continue their mundane life happily, because of their obsession with something. “Bilathikuzhal” (“English Barrel”) is about such a man who is obsessed with his “English Barrel” gun.
From the first scene itself, we see the obsession of Kunhambu (Sanjay) with guns. As a kid, his grandmother asks him what kind of stories he wants to listen and the immediate answer comes. ‘about guns’. Although the grandmother doesn’t know any stories about guns, her stories are mostly fantasies with graphic violence. This deeply influences Kunhambu’s mind along with the stories from his friends about his neighbour Chindan Muthapan(Haridas). Chindan Muthapan and his English Barrel became such an important part of Kunhambu’s own fantasies that he was being saved from nightmares by Chindan Muthapan.
In the second half of the film, we see Kunhambu (Balettan) as an elderly man who has sons and grandchildren yet is still obsessed with his gun. His gun gets submitted to the police station and he’s not able to get it back for 5 years. After all that time, he still visits the station every day. calmly waiting for the procedures to end so he can get the gun back.
Even though the story is always centred around the gun, it is never actually seen being used other than a couple of off-screen moments; where both are pretty harmless situations. Even Kunhambu hardly seems to be a person who has any affection for violence. The gun is seen as a valuable artefact which creates an equal amount of fascination and terror to all these characters.
“Bilathikuzhal” also shows how the world changes from a man’s childhood to his old age and yet he can still find the soul of the land out there. The silent village that makes one feel like they are in some forest, gets transformed into a normal village with more activity. But in that process, it has lost its fantasy of the supernatural that was owned by the previous generation. That, in turn, explains the actions of the next generation concerning the gun. Even at the end, Kunhambu tries to find some solace in the more untouched parts of the village.
As a kid, Kunhambu is only fascinated with the fantasies and heroic stories. However, as an adult, he’s aware of everything happening around. The hard work of his younger son on farming and on his store; his childhood friend who has grown up to be the village philosopher and their views on him; as well as the actions of an even younger generation.
The meditative movements of the camera by Ram Raghav along with the direction of Vinu Kolichal make sure that it’s also a story of a land. The feeling of living a serene life while clutching on fantasies. Simplicity in life even when everyone else wants to make it complicated. “Bilathikuzhal” will fill the hearts of the people who can digest a bit of independent arthouse filmmaking and a serene and beautiful world to look at.
Even though there are a few moments where some insignificant characters give artificial performances, most of the actors are quite brilliant. Balettan’s portrayal of Kunhambu with the spiritual longing, Haridas’s hidden raw force as Chindan Muthappan that never actually plays out openly and Sanjay’s wonder, terror and fascination as the young Kunhambu were all perfect for their respective roles. For a debutant director, Vinu Kolichal definitely gives hopes for his future projects.
The authentic representation of the lifestyle of villagers, which is not even the main focus here, makes you think, why Malayalam films have never shown this kind of details before. The daily chores of an average villager involved in farming are shown with all of its interesting details that would make a viewer curious and without losing its natural momentum. From the thick Malabar slang that is hard for an average Malayali to comprehend to the genuine Malayalam words used throughout the first half, like “Bilathikuzhal” that is lost to the current generation, the film shows how true to the core it is for its makers.