Wednesday Malayalam: Nayakan, Pellissery’s First Film, It’s All About the Faces

Woo, I only have one Pellissery film left to watch! And also, booo I only have one Pellissery film left to watch. I will be so sad when it is over.

This is definitely a first film. It has that slightly hinky first film feel, including those overly labored shots that make you think about how much work they were and take you right out of the movie. On the other hand, there are already elements of the particular Pellissery brilliance. Once again, he comes up with a particular visual style to match the particular story he is telling. The theme/moral is less subtle and complex this time around (again, first film), but his unique stylistic technique is already as clever and clear while being hidden as it would always be.

Image result for nayakan 2010 poster

This time, the film is about faces. Our hero Indrajith is a Kathakali dancer, which means acting from the face. Kathakali has a particular set of gestures and movement to tell the story (no dialogue), but what sets it aside from other similar dance forms is that the face make-up is part of the story. The way a dancer is made up, along with the very specific expressions of their face, tell you who they are, if they are good or bad people, and what they feel about things.

This is the obvious theme, and then there is the Pellissery draws it out through visuals. For instance, our villain’s house is covered in faces. His walls hold classic European art works, which indicate his alliance with wealth and outside power over the people of India, obviously. But what is less obvious is that all of those works of art, from reproductions of sketches to paintings, are focused on the face. In the house of Thilakan, our “good” mentor character, there is only one face on the wall, a photo of his dead son. And for our hero, there are no reproductions of faces around him, only the actual face of himself, made up and practices to reflect his emotions.

Faces on walls, still pretty simple and easy, just a few words to the set designer to make it happen. But lets look at the camera work. When Indrajith is introduced to the rest of the gang, they are wrestling in the mud. As Indrajith watches, out of this sea of writhing bodies, the heroine points out one person after another and tells him their names and stories. The camera finds their faces as she talks, follows them, so that we see not the whole person but just their face, covered in mud like a mask, moving on this background of bodies. A variation on this kind of technique happens over and over again. There are the obvious moments when a character faces the camera directly and emotes, or speaks. That feels like a first time director error, being too obvious about things, but it is on purpose. This is a movie for faces. But the less obvious use of faces is constant. The face is always centered on the frame, often in close up.

This sounds stupid, no duh the face is centered on the frame and in close up, that’s what filmmaking is. But actually, it isn’t. Lots of times in a film, an object will be at the center of the frame (the safe the characters are robbing, for instance), or the focus will be on the body as a whole, not just the face. Close ups, those are rarer than you would think. In most films, the common way we see characters is in a two shot, seeing them from the waist up with the camera jumping around instead of focused on their faces. In this movie, even in fight scenes when the body is usually highlighted, the focus is on the face.

The style choice, in this one particular Pellissery film, is actually more interesting than the message it is supporting. The face is the mirror of the soul, the bad people only see their own face or painted faces, Thilakan only sees the face of his dead son, our hero sees and reflects all the faces around him. Your usual “good gangster cares about people, bad gangster cares about power and things” kind of message. Just done in a really really cool way.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Big big subtitle fail here, which I have to acknowledge because it affects my ability to understand and summarize the plot. There were intertitles that clearly denoted time passing, or a flashback starting, or something or other. But they were not subtitled. So I don’t know if the film was structured based on time, or on emotion, or on phases of the Mahabharat story, or WHAT. If you have seen this movie, and you can read Malayalam, please tell me. And I will struggle ahead missing that vital element.

We open in the middle (something that will become a Pellissery hallmark). Indrajith is in a car rushing to the hospital, when the car he is in is hit as well. We see two police officers brought in to investigate, and then it is revealed that Indrajith, believed to be dead, somehow survived the accident. And we flashback. Indrajith is putting on his make-up preparing for a Kathakali performances when he gets a call that someone he wants will be at a particular time and place later. Jagathy, his mentor, (yes yes, this is very weird because Jagathy is Indrajith’s mother’s ex-husband in real life) hands him a sacred palm leaf with a gun hidden in it. Indrajith then goes to kidnap a man and it becomes clear that he is trying to incite a gang war while appearing innocent himself. Meanwhile, Thilakan gets up in the morning and prepares for vengeance, having breakfast with his wife and daughter (who brings him a gun along with the breakfast plate) and acknowledging the garlanded photo of his dead son. He goes to the police station and has a confrontation while bailing out a gunda. And finally goes to the death ceremony where Indrajith performs the rites, indicating that they are connected.

Okay, I’m already tired, and without knowing what the intertitles say it is really hard to track this whole film in order. I know the next major section is a flashback explaining Indrajith’s backstory, set-up by the two police officers who are investigating interacting with each other. The backstory isn’t that original or interesting, but the way the police officers interact is. We have an older cop and a young eager one who makes bitter asides about him. They have a big blow up when the older cop gives the younger one a hard time for not bringing him the one bit of information he wanted out of the massive amount he uncovered. And then the older cop tracks him down in the archives and they talk sincerely to each other, face to face, about their mutual insecurities and why they act the way they act. FACES!!!! In a different movie, these police officers would be “faceless”. That is, just there to fulfill the role of people in uniform providing exposition. But this film makes sure to give us literal close-ups of their faces, over and over again, to make them feel real to us. And metaphorival close ups, like this conversation when we learn a little more about them.

I have to admit, I usually find these kind of gangster sagas really boring. I need a cheat sheet and a diagram to remember who everyone is and why they matter. That wasn’t a problem with this movie. Because it wasn’t about the diagram, it was about the people. Who cares how the police found the clues and put together the story, what matters is that one police officer came up through the ranks and thinks the best way is to insult and come down hard on his new subordinate, and a new subordinate who came in at a high rank due to intelligence and thinks he deserves respect. That’s what matters.

That’s what matters (mostly) in Indrajith’s flashback. The first part is fine but it is kind of by the numbers. He is raised in an idyllic village by his Kathakali dancer father. Then he gets a job and fights with his father (“your old ways are no good! I want money and city and freedom!” we’ve all seen this fight before) and leaves home. His father and sister go to The City (nooooo! Always bad when the father and sister go to The City) and are, or course, drawn into crime and brutally killed. Our hero, of course, returns home ready for vengeance only to learn that the police and blah blah are corrupt. And then Thilakan turns up and it gets interesting again.

Thilakan picks Indrajith up after he is beaten and takes him into his house. And now we are back to “faces”. Although even in the blah-blah “evil is everywhere!” section, that was still there. When Indrajith goes to confront Siddique who he is sure killed his family, he is confronted by a group of men representing power in the city. And we see their faces. In most movies (for instance, stupid Bharat Ane Nenu), there would be a conscious artistic decision to make this a “faceless” group. Evil and power is faceless, inpenetrable, inhuman. This movie doesn’t give us that easy answer. Evil has a face, evil is a person, it is a person who made a choice to be that way. And then when we get to Indrajith, we have the lesson that those who choose violence have faces as well. It isn’t “gang problems” or “cycle of violence” or whatever else, it is just people who each have their own reasons for coming together.

Indrajith goes to Malaysia to start working for Thilakan, and that is when I really noticed faces, because they were suddenly absent. Malaysia was a culture shock for Indrajith, he felt no connection with anyone there, it suddenly became this sea of people who were just background noise. And then we go back to Kochi, and the world snaps into focus again, everyone has a face.

Somewhere in here, we are introduced to the backstory of Siddique, the villain. He is a magician and a criminal power behind politicians. Again, the boring usual “bad criminal” versus “good criminal” message. Thilakan lives with his people in the poor neighborhood of the city and protects them. Siddique threatens and controls powerful politicians in order to make vast moneys that he uses to buy luxury items and cover his walls in the faces of fake people. Thilakan and Indrajith are playing a long game, setting up a gang war to draw Siddique out, until they finally confront him, leave him chained alone on an island shot through the head.

The headshot is one of the few obviously showy pieces of camera work, and it is a bit poorly done, bad CGI and stuff, we see Thilakan through the hole in Siddique’s head, just so it is clear that he was shot straight through the head. And thus the shock of the twist, when Siddique reappears. Because he was absolutely clearly dead.

Not a shock for me, because he did what I think of as the “Dhoom 3” magic trick right at the start, where he disappears from the stage and reappears far away, so I was guessing on twins. More broadly, the twist feels cheap. The meat of this film is in the consideration of this world of many people and how they hurt and help each other. A surprise twin twist just doesn’t fit.

What does fit is what comes after, Thilakan is killed and betrayed by his own men, and Indrajith must take control. His face has been a mask until now, hiding his true power and his true anger from those who wronged him. And hiding it from the woman he loves as well, Thilakan’s peace loving younger daughter who wants him to forget violence and vengeance and thinks it will be simple. And on the other hand, Siddique is also losing his “mask”, his twin who served as the public face of his evil until now. The unmasked reality of their feelings is brought forth in this final confrontation, good versus evil, or two evil versus each other.

Like I said, not the best Pellissery film. Or the best Indrajith, Thilakan, or Siddique film for that matter. But better than pretty much anything else you can find from the Malayalam industry, or any other.

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