I think director Jayaraj has always been very unpredictable. Sometimes, he would bring out atrocious films like Camel Safari, Rain Rain Come Again and Of the People, while occasionally, he would also make touching and memorable films like Deshadanam and Kaliyattam. Off late, his films have been in the former category more often, but through Ottaal, Jayaraj returns to meaningful film-making once again. Jayaraj has been successful multiple times (Kaliyattam, Kannaki) in adapting plays and stories from outside India to Kerala environment, and Ottaal is an adaptation of an 1886 short story named Vanka by Chekhov. It is amazing to see that the social issues that were touched upon in the 19th century story are still relevant in the Indian context today.
Ottaal starts with showing a little boy named Kuttappayi, who is forced to work at a fireworks factory, writing a letter to his grandfather in a remote Kerala village, requesting him to come and rescue him. The film shifts to a flashback then, and we see Kuttappayi's carefree life with his grandfather in a Kuttanad village. His parents, who were debt-ridden farmers, had committed suicide and Kuttappayi was being brought up by his grandfather since then, who earned a living taking care of ducks grazing in the backwaters. As he is diagnosed with a terminal disease, the grandfather is worried about Kuttappayi, who does not have any other relatives. He decides to hand over Kuttappayi to his "boss", the owner of the ducks, hoping that the little boy would be able to get something to eat at least. The boss promptly "sells" the boy to the fireworks factory owner, where he would now start his "lessons of life".
The key characters of Kuttappayi and his grandfather are played by new actors, and I felt that there was scope for improvement in their performances at least in some of the scenes. However, Jayaraj makes up for that by having Kuttanad itself as a main character of the film, capturing the mood and atmosphere of the pristine landscapes like never before. He is greatly helped by MJ Radhakrishnan's camera, and the few lines of poems by Kavalam Narayana Panicker. We see panoramic views of the waters covered with beautiful lilies, and a flock of ducks making various patterns in the canals; We see the sun setting gradually with a couple of static silhouette images of erumadams and huts in the foreground, and can sense the way the sort of sad but beautiful loneliness spreads in the evenings. Jayaraj's attempts to make a forceful emotional impact on the viewers is evident in some of the scenes, but he has managed to never let the film slip into melodrama, and I think Ottaal would be one of the best films from him.