Well made, and with a strong lead, though the writing and direction could do with a little polish, Lilli is a grittier and bloodier film than we’re used to setting from India.
Lilli is an Indian survival thriller about a hostage named – guess what – Lilli. I’ve not got much experience of Indian films (two films and one Indian TV show), but the very word leads me to expect something flamboyant, low-budget or both. This was different: a gritty plot, with an unpolished set and above average acting… oh, and violence.
Lilli is not a Bollywood film, but “Mollywood”, with all dialogue in Malayalam rather than Hindi. I don’t know if the characteristics above are typical of Mollywood (this is the first such I’ve watched), but I get the feeling writer/director Prasobh Vijayan is pushing the envelope somewhat, especially with the violence.
Anyway, there is plenty to like about Lilli, despite a number of flaws. First, the story: times are tough in the home of Lilli (Samyuktha Menon) and Ajith (Aaryan Krishna Menon), but they are expecting their first baby in a couple of weeks and are happily getting by. Late one night, Lilli gets a phone call saying her husband has been in an accident, and she goes out to find him… only to be grabbed by three strange men, who ask her the whereabouts of a girl. The remainder of the film is about her attempts to resist and escape from this captivity, and the mystery of why she is being put through this ordeal.
As well as the main plot, there are a couple of minor plot strands about a man on the run who tries to help Lilli, about the economic situation in the country, and in flashbacks, what led to this incarceration. Lilli’s plot is a simple (and unoriginal) one, though it really could have done without those extra subplots: simple is fine when executed well. And it is indeed made well. Something about the quality of the acting and production reminded me of Satan’s Slaves; not sure if it was the believable setting, the everyday characters or the sharp cinematography… probably a combination.
Lilli and her husband, when introduced at the beginning, made a strikingly believable pair; and their conversations of hope and home economics only reinforced that. Samyuktha Menon made an excellent lead as Lilli herself in her first screen part: even when some of the action was a little incredible, she carried it well. Oh and talking of carrying, her pregnancy was quite realistic too (though I understand it was a prosthetic). The other characters were largely two dimensional, and the actors who played them unremarkable: the three kidnappers, for example, were simply a leader, a lech and a guy with a conscience (though otherwise, they were quite like the kidnappers in Trust).
As for the cinematography, which I’ve already alluded to… Lighting is well used in every scene, and there is plenty of it: after the initial trap, Lilli is largely set in broad daylight. There are some lovely wide and high shots which show the depth of isolation she is kept in. This contrasts with an easy going scene much earlier following a butterfly in her home. The camera doesn’t get too close to the violence when it happens (which is how this film avoided a horror label, I reckon): there are no explicit wound shots; rather the camera shows the result of the blows and the face of the one doing it. The film is certainly bloody and does not shy away from showing violent acts, but it doesn’t dwell on a gory outcome.
The score, by Sushin Shyam, is subtle and very well arranged. It fits with the film very well, and I’m now on the lookout for more with this young name attached. Another stark contrast with other Indian thrillers or horrors I’ve seen, with melodramatic music.
You know, I wonder why Lilli’s character was made to be pregnant? Was it to make her treatment more shocking? Make the way she fights back more shocking? Or perhaps to explain the extra reserves of adrenaline she found; not to mention the will to survive.
If Netflix recommends you watch Lilli, give it a go. The description there is actually more accurate than the official publicity blurb on IMDb, which mentions “a gang of sadistic men” and “insurmountable odds”, neither of which are good descriptions, and they make it sound more over-the-top than it is. Lilli is just an hour and a half long and shows something tense and gritty; not what I’m used to from Indian cinema.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.