Kamal's 'Khaddama' opens with an iris scanner at a Saudi Arabian airport inspecting an eye that fretfully flits this way and that, bewildered at the new world that it finds around it. Aswathy (Kavya Madhavan) holding a Khaddama visa, waits for her sponsor to arrive and take her to an alien land, as has thousands of women before her, and as thousands that would follow.
Aswathy hasn't had much of an easy life, and left alone after her husband's (Biju Menon in a cameo) untimely demise, she decides to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia for eight hundred riyals a month. The house and the people that await her have little regard for the 'Malabari', whom they feel simply cannot be trusted. Besides being emotionally tormented, Aswathy is physically abused as well, and being unable to take it anymore, she flees at night, without a passport, money or security.
The never ending sea of sand that awaits her outside is blazing hot during the day and searing cold during the night. The men that she encounters during her journey are all strugglers in their own right. Usman (Suraj Venjarammoodu) talks of his wife and kids back home in Kerala, and yet doesn't think twice before grabbing a couple of hundreds off the Khaddama's pay. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there and scruples are the last thing on the man's mind when he indifferently disowns Aswathy later.
There is Basheer (Shine Tom) who has taken to life with the goats in a desert with apathy, after repeated attempts to break away from his employers led nowhere. There is Bharathan (Muralikrishnan) who frustratedly exclaims as to how he had taken off from his homeland hoping to live for real for once, and how after fifteen long years, he is right where he started off.
The script penned by Gireesh Kumar, for most of its part retains a sharp adherence to reality and throws open before us the lives of scores of Indian expatriates who battle it out with life in foreign soil. The issues that they deal with are laid out thread bare, and the warm drama that encompasses all of these within its folds is intensely moving. It's a poignant story that keeps the torch of optimism and resilience burning and that unveils an unusually tough and gritty slice of the human toil for survival.
As is the case with any film that dwells on a compelling theme as this, 'Khaddama' runs the risk of moving way too close to melodrama. It doesn't exactly evade this hazard successfully, and at times, appear mawkish. There is also Razak (Sreenivasan), a social worker who investigates into Aswathy's mysterious disappearance, and his interactions with the local Malayalam daily editor (Manu Jose) smells like chestnut salad. Of all the characters in 'Khaddama', Razak is quite contradictorily an essentiality as well as a liability.
The title role of 'Khaddama' is all safe and secure with Kavya and the film belongs to her. The terror and panic that overpower the girl hopelessly lost in the hot sand dunes is efficiently captured by the actress who makes the ordeal that she goes through totally believable. Of the actors, we get to see flashes of Bharath Gopi in Muralikrishnan, who is truly a revelation in a brief role.
Manoj Pillai's incredible visuals drive the desert wind straight onto your face, and M Jayachandran's melancholic background score adds an unsettling power to the proceedings. Even if you do feel that film could have done away with the songs, there is no escape from the magical voice of Shreya Ghoshal rendering 'Vidhuramee Yatra' set to tune by Bennet Veetrag.
'Khaddama' is a compelling effort from Kamal, with some real convincing performances at its core. It speaks about some desperate choices to be made during despondent circumstances, and even then, never for a moment, loses hope.