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What sets Mili apart from most films of this genre is that it revolves around a woman and therefore gives ample room to address themes such as chauvinism, chastity, female agency, morality, and the male gaze. Starring Janhvi Kapoor, Sunny Kaushal, and Manoj Pahwa, it is playing at a theatre near you.
You may ask why Mili when Helen, the original 2019 Malayalam film already exists. Or when, even closer home, this movie by Mathukutty Xavier (who also directed Helen), feels not too different from Trapped (2016), another gritty survival drama directed by Vikramaditya Motwane starring Rajkummar Rao. But 10 minutes into the film you’ll know why.
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Janhvi Kapoor plays the eponymous protagonist—an earnest 24-year-old nursing graduate who lives with her father in Dehradun. She works part-time at a fast-food restaurant so she can better fund her plans of moving to Canada in the hope of more lucrative prospects. The film, written by Xavier, Noble Babu Thomas, Alfred Kurian Joseph, and Ritesh Shah carefully builds up to the main act so that when Mili gets stuck in the cold storage of her restaurant one fateful night, the stage is set.
At 130 minutes, Mili is unarguably Kapoor’s best performance so far. She makes Mili’s inherent goodness, her want to do better, her concern for her father’s health, and her annoyance at her boyfriend’s casual irresponsibility believable, effortlessly adding a youthful charm to the ordinariness of the everyday. Mili faces life with inspired optimism and rare restraint, including the days when it doesn’t come easy. Even when she’s battling for life, Kapoor makes sure that her superhuman resilience never feels over the top.
The film’s supporting cast is just as solid. Manoj Pahwa is absolutely endearing as Mili’s single father who forms the core of her small, sheltered world. Sunny Kaushal plays her boyfriend Sameer with an easy affability. But it is Anurag Arora who really stands out as the bad cop and wonderfully illustrates how commonplace evil can be.
The film’s technical departments deserve a special mention too. The sound design by Leslie Fernandes is brilliant; it amps up the thrill, making significant of even Mili’s minutest movements inside the cold storage as she bends over backwards to stay alive. Monisha R Baldawa’s editing is slick; she makes some of the shot transitions work like metaphors. The role and responsibility of makeup artists are crucial in films like these, where the changing physicality of the protagonist signals their withering away. Mili’s MUAs do a terrific job of showing the various stages of her body crumbling down in sub-zero temperatures.
However, the relentless closeups of her bleeding nose, broken ankle, elbow shorn off the skin, and face that’s swollen and turned purple beyond recognition are a little on the excess. The film’s convenient plotting to heighten the drama—her father finding out about her relationship in an unfortunate circumstance, smartphones breaking or shutting down just when needed the most, Sameer meeting with a minor accident at a crucial point, or a jailed inmate saving the day—is too contrived, making Mili feel like a film despite all its realism. The in-your-face symbolism doesn’t work either; it’s simplistic in a way that reveals the director doesn’t trust his audience’s intelligence enough.
But what sets Mili apart from most films of this genre is that it revolves around a woman and therefore gives ample room to address themes such as chauvinism, and the male gaze. The film also wonderfully highlights how, often, women have to suffer to alter the prejudices of the men around them. It is packaged as a survival thriller, but at its heart, Mili is a perceptive socio-cultural drama about how the gender of the missing person decides the questions, the concerns, and the investigation.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.