I already posted a spoiler free review, discussing the major themes and meanings of the film. Now I think I am ready to get into the nitty-gritty details of what happened and why it was like that.
I’m just gonna get the plot summary out of the way right at the start, so I can move on to talking about details. Just in case you can’t/don’t want to see it in theaters first. Oh, and the whole plot is done in this great flashback/flashforward thing, but I’m just going to do it straight and more or less chronological.
Our hero is Dulquer, he looks to be about 40 maybe, he is unmarried with a pretty good job as a security person in Bombay, and a casual girlfriend, and some nice friendships with his co-workers. But then he gets a strange phone call in the middle of the night, from an old friend, “Ganga”, who says he is worried, he is in danger, and he wants Dulquer to come home and take “Anitha” away, Ganga never should have married her, she belongs with Dulquer.
A couple days later, Dulquer gets another call from Ganga. He says that he is safe, it is fine now, don’t worry. And then there is the sound of a blow, with a distinctive ringtone playing in the background, and then another blow and another and another. This is enough for Dulquer to take a leave from work and go back to his hometown, outside Cochin (I think?) in Kerala and try to find Ganga.
And then intercut with his search for Ganga in the present day are his memories of his childhood and young adulthood in Kerala. His family moved to a small rural area when he was a young boy, and he became friends with the two dalit children who lived nearby, Ganga (Vinayakan) and Anitha (Shaun Romy), and spends time with them and their family, headed by their wise grandfather, and with Vinayakan’s older brother Balan (Manikunda Achari) as their hero. When they are still young boys, Manikunda is hired by the local store owner to take out the local tough. Manikunda fails, and the local toughs brutally stabs two of his friends who were helping him. The two young boys witness everything.
Years later, as teenagers, Manikunda brings them into his gang, which is increasingly powerful in the city, and which proudly represents and defends their neighborhood. At the same time, young Dulquer is more and more in love with Shaun Romy, and she with him, although of course they are too young to really say or do anything about it. The store owner who originally hired Manikunda to confront the local tough, now brings in an older man, Mithai, to teach the young boys in his gang how to fight with knives, and provides each of them with their own weapon. The same day as the lesson, the police chase and beat Vinayakan, and Dulquer impulsively defends him using his new weapon, and slashing a police officer.
A few years later, Dulquer is released from jail. His father is waiting for him, wants to take him home to his family, but before he can, Vinayakan pulls up in a car and insists on taking him off to celebrate with the old gang. Manikunda is still running things, and is older and wiser and more powerful. Now they have a massive bootlegging operation, directed by the same store owner as before. The old gang of boys all work for them, along with a few new members. Dulquer easily falls into the lifestyle, drinking, laughing, driving the getaway vehicles. But as their boss gets increasingly powerful, Balan is increasingly uncomfortable with what they are doing. They go from casual bootlegging, to intimidating union organizers and forcing out tenants in a landgrab. And they are increasingly dismissive of Manikunda, not listening to his concerns or demands, and allowing a fellow gang leader, Johnny, to disrespect him and threaten his “boys”. Finally, Manikunda decides to get out, he and Dulquer come up with the idea of buying a van and opening a respectable “transport” business with their existing car and truck. But before they can move forward with their plans, Manikunda is killed.
And then there is another jump forward. Dulquer has opened his own transport business with the van they bought, named for Manikunda (Balakrishna). He is trying to save money so he can marry Anitha, who is still waiting for him. He has fallen out with Vinayakan, who is still running his own gang. And then an old gang member seeks him out and hires his van for a job that night. Vinayakan ignores him at first, but when the fight goes bad and he drives the van in to save them, their fight is forgotten and Vinayakan invites him to go out drinking with the rest of them that night. At the bar, they run into an old acquaintance, who is drunk enough to reveal the truth of who killed Manikunda, Johnny, their old rival. Vinayakan and Dulquer and the gang go out and track down Johnny. There is a messy bad fight, one of Dulquer’s gang is slashed across the neck bleeds out in the van on the way to the hospital. Vinayakan and Dulquer stay back and work together to slash and stab at Johnny. And then they take the van off to a remote farm, and hide out together, waiting for the police to move on to another case.
And this is where it all goes wrong, all of a sudden, in the past. Vinayakan asks Dulquer to let him marry Shaun Romy, because they are from the same community, and she is his “traditional bride” (hey! I just learned about this from a commentator a couple days ago! first cousins are traditionally married, and call each other “traditional bride” and “traditional groom”). He will take care of her and make her happy, if Dulquer will just let her go. Dulquer can’t, he has to make one last try, so he sneaks out, borrows money, and plans to elope with her and never come back. Only, he is caught by the police on the way to their meeting, and arrested, and when he got out, Shaun Romy was already married to Vinayakan, so he went straight to Bombay and started a new life.
In the present day, he tracks down all his old friends from the gang, and learns that Vinayakan had slid further and further downhill, borrowing money from friends and doing small jobs of violence for the boss, while everyone else had moved on, started businesses, families, etc. In the past few days, he had seemed terrified, more scared than anyone had ever seen before, and was paying off debts and planning for his death, including calling Dulquer to come and take care of Shaun Romy when he was gone. Finally, Dulquer learns that the younger brother of “Johnny” was the one hunting Vinayakan, and Dulquer, if he could get him to come back to town. Dulquer finds and confronts Johnny and his brother, takes out their gang, but is stabbed in the torso. He manages to recover, and Vinayakan’s body is found while he is in the hospital. Only, at the funeral, he hears the same ringtone he heard on the phone with Vinayakan, coming from the old man who taught them how to use knives in the first place, who is now the houseman, errand boy, all around everything for that same store keeper who first hired them, who is now a millionaire, in his huge apartment building he built on the land taken from the dalits. Dulquer forces the errand boy to take him to his boss, and finally learns the full story. Vinayakan was hiding from Johnny’s gang with his old boss. He called Dulquer to let him know he was safe, and the boss heard him talk about how he was safe now, he can stay here forever, he is taken care off, and couldn’t take it, couldn’t take the thought of having Vinayakan in his life forever. So he killed him and burned the body. He tells Dulquer it doesn’t matter, Vinayakan was nothing and nobody, and no one eve liked him. And Dulquer tells him that his whole fortune was built on the backs of people like Vinayakan and their “thick black blood”. And then he kicks him through the window of his high rise building. And that’s the end of the movie.
Okay, first thing I have to say, is that Dulquer is really good in this. He convincingly plays young man, slightly more mature man, and full grown 40 something guy. It’s in everything, the openness of his expressions, the way he walks, the way he looks at people, it all shifts age to age. Oh, and especially with the mustache, he is looking more and more like his father. Which was a little distracting, since this is a period piece, so by the time they reach the 80s, it is kind of distracting that none of the movie posters and so on in the background have a picture of Mammootty on them.
Vinayakan is really good too. It’s an interesting performance. I talked in my spoiler-free review about how it seems to be showing the way oppressed communities can sometimes come off as “too much” to outsiders. Because they have to be too much, or else no one will even see them. Vinayakan’s performance relies on that. He is a little crazy, a little over the top, a little unnatural. But he still manages to have a layer of humanity to his performance, even in the loudest moments, you still believe their are real feelings underlying it. I was especially impressed when I looked up his filmography and realized that I had seen him in other movies, Iyobinte Pustakan and Kali. He plays a lowercaste outlaw type in both (I’m guessing his personal appearance limits him to those kinds of roles? Someone who looks like him wouldn’t be acceptable as a romantic lead, or a brother of the hero?), but those characters are distinctly different from the one he plays here, he manages to put different shades on it film to film.
And Manikunda is amazing, the way he walks, the way he looks at people, the way he interacts with Dulquer and Vinayakan, you can see how he is just “bigger” than all the other character, you can see why people follow him and love him. And when he goes away, you feel the loss and the gap in their lives, just like they do. He also does an amazing job of showing how he learns to lean into the madness and crazed behavior that people expect from him, in order to get what he wants. The first time he goes “mad”, it is natural, instinctive, to protect his family from the landlords the only way he can. But later, there is a definite tinge of performance to it, putting on a front to help terrify his enemies and inspire his followers.
This is Shaun Romy’s first movie, and she does a good job! Not that she has much to do. Which is kind of too bad. We don’t even get a resolution as to what will happen to her at the end of the film, if Dulquer will take her away back to Bombay with him, or if they have changed too much in the years between. But then, she does have dialogue that sort of explains this. At the end of the film, she confronts Dulquer about how she has always just been this thing that is passed between him and Vinayakan. She never gets to choose what she wants, to do anything for herself.
Between the 4 leads, especially the men, I was very aware that our official “hero” and lead of the film was not a dalit. Not only is his character clearly not a dalit, he is also tall, pall, straight haired and with European looking features. One look at him just shouts out that he does not belong with these people!
(Here is a picture of the three of them, with the other 2 actors holding up the fake teeth they had to wear for their characters)
Oh, and I am assuming the choice of the name “Krishnan” was on purpose? Because Krishna is famously darker colored than his friends and companions, while Dulquer is lighter than them. Krishna is their charioteer and assistant, just as Dulquer drives his friends around. Krishna and Radha are separated just like Dulquer and Shaun Romy. Only, the controversial message is that this Krishna is there to help two lowly dalit brothers, not 5 princes of a ruling family.
I kept waiting for an explanation, that his father was weak so he found a father figure with his neighbors. That there was some horrible trauma in his past that made him gravitate towards these violent figures, that he had some wise person in his own family who told him to spend time with the less fortunate, SOMETHING. And maybe there were small touches of that. His father was kind of weak, and at the same time showed him how to behave with respect and courtesy to their new neighbors. The shared trauma of witnessing death as young boys tied him with Vinayakan. His sister was kind of a jerk and made his home very unpleasant. But there was no big anything that explained it.
And then at about 2am, I suddenly realized that there didn’t need to be a big anything! That it was on me and my own prejudices that I ever thought there should be. Young children become friends with other young children who live nearby. That’s just life. They are too young to know what caste or community they belong to. And, once they are friends, why would they ever stop being friends? Why should the dalits be so foreign to Dulquer that he can’t understand and love them? Why wouldn’t he be as close to them as he would be to any other neighborhood friends growing up in any other neighborhood?
That’s maybe the most controversial message of the film. That all it takes to become part of the dalit community, to love them and understand them and champion them, is to just do it. No big mystery, no need to for a deep understanding or study, just move there and live there and get to know them. That’s it. And the hope of this movie, I think, is to force the audience to have that kind of experience, for at least a few hours.