I know I know, I should be picking off of my list. But ErosNow just added a bunch of Malayalam films and I got over-whelmed by options and decided to just go with the first one that popped up with Mammootty.
I am guessing this is not a top-tier movie? Like, right below top-tier, but not All Time Classic. It was good, I forgot how soothing and wise Malayalam films feel, but it wasn’t like good-good-good. But maybe I am missing something subtle about Kerala history or culture or something. Or even just something really beautiful in the dialogue.
But, like I said, even with the little extra stuff that would put it over the top for me, it was still good. The plot was a fascinating sort of onion thing, where you kept peeling off layers. The social statements were surprisingly transgressive and radical. And the female characters were strong.
Place-setting was fun too. It was one of those movies (which, actually, most Malayalam movies seem to be like) where we spent a good hour just slowly sinking into the location and the characters before anything really “happened”. And there was even kind of a payoff for it, at the end when the final twists were all played out, we could go back and look at everything we learned in the beginning and how wrong it was.
(Very Agatha Christie like. Also, if you haven’t watched this episode you really should. Super soothing. And Seasonal!)
And hey, Mammootty! Looking young and athletic, which was nice. And doing a good job with his role. But still, I’m guessing this isn’t one of the “great” performances for him, more just sort of run of the mill.
In terms of influences, am I right that this was sort of an Amitabh-action inspired kind of film? That’s what it felt like, especially at the end, but I’m not sure if that was a think in Kerala. Or if it was, that it was the Amitabh films which inspired it instead of some local tradition.
Really, it was kind of an odd combination of two aesthetics. There was the Amitabh-style action movie with master criminals and fight scenes and a bond between men. Plus the transgressive message that social authorities shouldn’t be trusted. But then there was also what I think of as the “Malayalam” style, which is very much about slooooooooooowly getting to know a place and the people in it, and then using that to piece together what is happening exactly.
Okay, this is a short review so far, but I want to dive into the plot points right away, because that’s what I found most interesting, how those unfolded and what they meant.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
We open with Mammootty and his wife moving into a house in a small mountain village. He is an engineer, there to help plan a new 5 star hotel for the village. And then we meet the other people of the village. The corruptible head of the Panchayat, the local priest who runs a school, the rape-y and uncaring head of the factory, the hardworking carriage driver who’s child stays with the priest while he works, and the insane asylum run by a young doctor, and housing a traumatized young woman who keeps trying to escape, and a harmless seeming young man who is always dancing Michael Jackson-style.
(Or Prabhu Deva style, depending on your perspective)
Only after all of that, having met everyone in the village and told them why he is there, does Mammootty seek out the priest and confess to him that, TWIST, he isn’t an engineer at all! He is here trying to track down an escaped convict whose sister is the asylum patient. He is telling the priest, relying on the sacrament of confession to protect his secret.
And now the audience sees the convict arrive in the village. Bearded, scary looking. He goes to stay in a small hut and gets a job at the factory. And then he shaves his beard and looks less scary. And starts acting kind of good too, he stands up for his fellow factory workers and defends the women that the factory owner is creeping on. Mammootty spots him as he drives by at one point, and you kind of find yourself rooting for the criminal! After all, with the factory owner and the corruptible Panchayat head being kind of user-y towards women, maybe the real evil is society, not this random convict?
And, TWIST! Mammootty and the convict finally confront each other and there is a big fight. Which ends with them greeting each other as long time friends and Mammootty calling him “sir”. WHAT??????
Ha! All that social commentary wasn’t random! The “cop” is actually the criminal and vice versa. And the criminal isn’t that criminal. He is a murderer, but he had a good reason and he is brave and noble and the cop trusts him. And they are working together to bring down the whole corruption of the village, all the sins that we saw those in power enjoy. Yay!
(It’s like this, but with direct action and police cases, instead of singing and dancing and gently convincing people to be better)
Better yet, all that rape-y stuff with the women wasn’t random either! The vulnerable lowerclass factory worker types might be in trouble. But Mammootty’s “wife” is ready to fight back. She is the real cop’s sister, and not only is she not afraid to pretend to be Mammootty’s wife and live with him, her brother isn’t afraid for her. There’s no timidity about an unmarried woman living alone with a single man, it’s just practical.
And when she (inevitably) falls in love with Mammootty, it’s not treated as a weakness or an error in judgement. She knows him from living together, she trusts his word and his judgement when he tells her his story. Oh, and she has a gun! But she isn’t a perfect action heroine, she is just a smart woman who can be trusted with a gun (okay, Mammootty takes it away from her, but he is the hero, after all).
Better than the strong heroine, is that all the molest-y stuff with the bad guys isn’t okay. I am so used to sexual harrassment being just kind of the forgotten backdrop to everything. But in this movie it is treated as an essential part of their villainy, possibly the most important.
Which brings me to the other main female character! Mammootty’s sister who, it turns out is his motivation both for this undercover mission and his original murder. She is insane, and was wrapped by a Bad Man who took advantage of her insanity. Mammootty took revenge, but he ended up killing the wrong guy. He is helping out the cop now, because he feels he has to atone for his mistake, and also the cop promised that the right guy is the one they are trying to catch now. And the real Big Bad is both a rapist and a terrorist. Because these two crimes are seen as related and equally bad. Thank you film! I agree!
The dehumanization and power obsession and lack of empathy that goes into making someone able to rape certainly seems, to me, related to the dehumanization and power obsession and lack of empathy that would go into making a mass killer.
Okay, there is a bit of a flaw here, in that Mammootty’s sister’s backstory is RIDICULOUS! But I will allow it, because it is enjoyably ridiculous. She was young and married and happy. And then her husband died in a motorcycle accident. Okay, I’ll allow that. She has a baby, she and her brother Mammootty raise the baby and are happy. Until Mammootty DROPS IT INTO A TIGER PIT WHERE IT IS TORN APART AND EATEN.
(Real tiger, fake baby. Instead of real person, stuffed tiger)
We get to see it too! Some poor tiger has to trot around holding a clearly fake doll in it’s mouth, while we intercut with the sister actress screaming her head off. Naturally, Mammootty feels very bad about this whole thing, seeing as his clumsiness lead to the tiger food end of his niece (nephew? I’m not sure), and the insanity of his sister. And then her insanity made her vulnerable to rape, so this whole thing is just very unpleasant.
Setting aside the tiger, I do like it that the primary victim is an insane widowed woman. Because it’s kind of the vulnerability trifecta. Just like in Akira, when it was an insane reputation tarnished woman.
And turns out the primary perpetrator is in the Power Trifecta in society! It’s…..THE PRIEST!!! Old-Check! Male-Check! Social Position of Power-Check Check Check!!!
The primary victim is super super helpless, and the primary villain is super super powerful, but the secondary victims and villains are still in social positions of vulnerability and power. The hard working station cart taxi guy is being terrorized as well in his vulnerable position as a working class single parent (everyone believes the Priest when he says the taxi guy “gave his daughter away to be raised”). The factory workers are literally being worked to death by the evil factory owner. And it is the factory owner and the inherited wealth Panchayat member (I think) who are in cahoots with the evil Priest.
The film ends with a Sholay reference, Mammootty sacrificing himself and dying while wearing white, but the overall message is kind of the opposite Sholay. Sholay was about the traditional powers trying to continue to protect society in a time of lawlessness and weak central powers. This is about the traditional powers oppressing the weak and lawlessness (Mammootty’s murderer) coming to save them.
And this is why even a not-so-great old Malayalam film is still fascinating! Because Malayalam films have a social perspective which is unique not just among Indian films, but among films from all industries from every country.