Sunday, December 15, 2019

REVIEW 755: MAMANGAM

Release date:
December 12, 2019
Director:
M. Padmakumar
Cast:




Language:
Mammootty, Unni Mukundan, Achuthan, Prachi Tehlan, Kaniha, Maala Parvathi, Anu Sithara, Siddique, Tarun Arora, Iniya, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Manikandan Achari, Sudev Nair
Malayalam (Dubbed versions in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi have also been released. This is a review of the original Malayalam film.)


Art does not exist in a vacuum. The socio-political context in which it has been created lends it layers and meaning it may not have when viewed in isolation. So, as violence erupts in India’s North-east following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 in Parliament, beef-related lynchings no longer provoke public outrage on the scale witnessed when Mohammed Akhlaq was murdered in Dadri in 2015, and large sections of the citizenry this month have been cheering what they consider an extra-judicial killing by the Telangana police, a pacifist film assumes great significance. It becomes especially crucial when that film casts one of India’s biggest stars as a character asking his people to give peace a chance.

This is why Mamangam: History of the Brave is impossible to ignore. Directed by M. Padmakumar, the film features Malayalam megastar Mammootty as a legendary warrior from Kerala who turns his back on violence when he becomes convinced of its pointlessness. 

Mammootty here plays Chandroth Valiya Panicker whose community is embroiled in a long-running blood feud with the ruling Saamoothiris a.k.a. Zamorins. In a bid to assassinate the incumbent monarch, these Kalari maestros have been targeting the extravagant Mamangan fair that takes place every 12 years on the banks of the Bharathappuzha river.

When the film opens, a voiceover explains the background to this enmity. The narrative then plunges into a bloody battle between Valiya Panicker’s band of fighters and the Zamorin’s forces at a Mamangam fair in the late 17th century. Cut to 24 years later when Chandroth Panicker (Unni Mukundan) informs his family that the Goddess appeared to him and instructed him to attend the upcoming Mamangam. His wife (Anu Sithara) and mother (Maala Parvathi) are just recovering from the shock when, much to their dismay, his adoloscent nephew Chanthunni (Achuthan) announces that he too has been similarly guided by the Devi.

As the two young men journey towards their fate, on a parallel track the Zamorin’s representative (played by Siddique) is shown investigating the mysterious disappearance of one of the king’s agents from the abode of the courtesan Unnimaaya (Prachi Tehlan).

The link between the two threads is Valiya Panicker.

This is a story with immense potential. As north Indian cinema increasingly celebrates violence and cashes in on the  hyper-nationalism dominating the public discourse, it reflects well on Malayalam cinema that it has not followed suit. Mamangam chooses to defy the bloodlust of the off-screen mob.

Thematic relevance, courage and sensitivity are not enough to hold up an entire film though when the writing is shallow and the storytelling style dull. These twin problem areas combined with action scenes and visual effects that are a mixed bag end up pulling down Mamangam.

It is all very well to show Valiya Panicker denouncing bloodshed, but the only way the messaging could have been effective is if we had been taken along on his inner travels. Sadly, the screenplay fails to satisfactorily explain how or why enlightenment struck him. One day he is driving swords into the Zamorin’s soldiers, and the next time we see him he is questioning the purpose of this seemingly never-ending hatred that has claimed numerous lives.


Even the conversations sound stiff. There is incessant talk about the wombs that have borne children only to give them up to this bloodletting. The women of the hero’s clan, in fact, speak of little but that. They though are better off than the courtesans who are given nothing much to do but gaze at the men with inexplicable expressions. In fact at one point in the narrative, as Valiya Panicker and Chanthunni chat while working together on a mural, Unnimaaya is present throughout their exchange but all she does is stare, then stare again, and then stare some more. I mean c’mon, Prachi Tehlan is pretty and has a curvaceous body showcased here in elegant minimal clothing, but considering that she serves little purpose in Mamangam beyond her visual appeal, the producers may as well have stuck her poster on one half of the screen during that scene instead of bothering to rope in a live human being for the role.

While on the subject of spectacle, the production design is one of the nicest technical aspects of this film. Both Unnimaaya’s residence and the Mamangam festival are bathed in a warm glow, drawing on a rich palette dominated by a tasteful blend of gold, cream and reds. The costumes share this colour scheme. Whether they are authentic to the period is for historians to say, but they are certainly easy on the eye.

The camerawork in Mamangam though is surprisingly lacklustre, and unable to capture the famed natural beauty of Kerala. This is odd since cinematography is one of contemporary Malayalam cinema’s great strengths.

The stunts, which should have been Mamangam’s USP, are unevenly executed. While wide swathes of the  action choreography are certainly impressive and had me on edge, the gravity-defying leaps taken by Valiya Panicker and Chanthunni lack fluidity, a fluidity that has been summoned up often enough in earlier depictions of Kalari on the Indian screen. When they fly, they look like images being manipulated on a computer rather than actual people.

The only characters in Mamangam that have some flesh are all men. It is unforgivable that gifted women like Anu Sithara have been cast in this film and wasted. Not that the men do much with the space they gave been given. Mammootty is the only actor who draws something out of his role, but given that the writing does not at all look within Valiya Panicker, there is only so much he can do. Still, it is important to note that in an avatar of his character where he is required to alter his body language and posture in favour of what is popularly considered effeminacy, he is measured and avoids caricature. Moreover, in an industry notorious for male stars who have not bothered to stay fit and maintain their physiques, he is the only one of his contemporaries who could possibly have suited this role.

Mamangam’s release has been preceded by a series of controversies more dramatic than the film itself. Director M. Padmakumar’s last film Joseph is still memorable for its ruminative air and Joju George’s career-defining performance. In Mamangam he is unable to fully exploit either his leading man’s brilliance or the large budget for which this film has made news.

Still, Mamangam is hardly the worst end Mammootty could have asked for in a year that has been elevated by his smashing performances in Peranbu (Tamil) and Unda (Malayalam). At least he does not romance a woman young enough to be his daughter in Mamangam as he does in too many of his films, and despite the pale writing he manages to leave his mark on the role. Most important though, at a time when many Indian male superstars are playing along with a murderous public frenzy over community and country pervading contemporary India, it means a lot to watch Mammootty head in the opposite direction.
 
Rating (out of 5 stars): 2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
156 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Saturday, December 7, 2019

REVIEW 754: PANIPAT


Release date:
December 6, 2019
Director:
Ashutosh Gowariker
Cast:


Language:
Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Sanjay Dutt, Mantra, Mohnish Bahl, Padmini Kolhapure, Zeenat Aman, Nawab Shah
Hindi with a bit of Marathi


The bar for Hindi film historicals plunged to unprecedented depths last year when Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat brazenly edited the truth to cash in on the anti-Muslim sentiment currently pervading India. Since then, Anurag Singh’s Kesari has rivalled that all-time low, distorting a 19th century battle by a Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army against Pathan forces, demonising the Muslim Pathans and rewriting the episode as a long-term fight by the Sikhs for India’s Independence.

History has been one of the many casualties of this era of fake news.

It is a measure of the abysmal state of Bollywood that it comes as a relief that Panipat is not an Islamophobic film. The Third Battle of Panipat was fought at that historic site in north India between the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas. though the writing team and director Ashutosh Gowariker (maker of Lagaan, Swades and Jodhaa Akbar) do take liberties with crucial facts here, at least they do not falsely paint this as a war between Muslim monsters and Hindu saints.

This is not to suggest that the film is bereft of caricatures. Of course not. The point simply is that the caricaturing in Panipat is not along religious lines, it is employed instead to portray the Marathas – their Muslim associates included – as a cleaner, gentler, more likeable people than Abdali and his associates. Towards this end, for instance, the opposition soldiers who attack the Peshwa’s young son Vishwas Rao and the Maratha general Ibrahim Khan Gardi on the battlefield are shown growling and contorting their faces like beasts of prey. It goes without saying that no Maratha in the film growls. No Maratha in the film is shown killing quite as viciously as Abdali either. Likewise, Abdali’s Rohilla ally Najib-ud-Daula is designed, both in terms of acting and styling, as an in-your-face slimeball. Again, no member of the Maratha side is pointedly made to look like a snake.

Still, it is important to note that this lack of nuance is not one-tenth as blatant and tacky as Padmaavat, nor dangerous and hate-filled in the way that film was.

Panipat casts Arjun Kapoor as Sadashivrao Bhau, the commander of the Peshwa’s Army who was sent to confront Abdali’s forces advancing across north India. This is 1761, the Marathas hold sway over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, the last of the powerful Mughal emperors, Aurangzeb, has been dead for half a century, and the present occupant of the throne in Delhi is a  weakling who owes allegiance to the Marathas. The Mughal court is divided though between pro- and anti-Maratha elements, and this is one of the sparks that leads to Sadashivrao’s campaign against Abdali (played by Sanjay Dutt) which culminates in the historic Battle of Panipat on January 14, 1761.

Gowariker’s Panipat spends considerable time on how the rivals stitched together alliances with small rulers across north India, using material gain and religion as a lure. This part of the narrative – despite the melodramatic acting by the supporting cast, the narrative’s penchant for overstatement and overcrowded as it is with new characters – remains interesting to the extent that it illustrates the impermanent, opportunistic nature of political relationships of the time, no different from the modern age.

Whether factual or fictional I cannot tell, but Sadashivrao’s wife Parvati (Kriti Sanon) is portrayed as an intelligent strategist whose advice and negotiation skills stood him in good stead. She, in fact, is the prime narrator of her husband’s story.

We know from Jodhaa Akbar that Gowariker has a gift for mounting lavish battlefield scenes, and here too the director does not disappoint although he is thankfully less self-indulgent in these passages in Panipat than he was in that earlier film. The actual combat and manoeuvrings at Panipat are surprisingly engaging, again, despite the amateurish acting of the bit-part players.

If Panipat remains a middling film despite this, it is because of its complete lack of finesse in addition to the needless romanticisation of the Marathas. A point once made is underlined and then re-underlined by the background score and the use of close-ups, which become particularly problematic when they end up  focusing on hammy actors. Sometimes the tone of the narrative becomes ponderous while at other times tricky points are rushed over. This is especially disappointing when Abdali, angered by the Maratha takeover of one of his occupied territories, decides to cross the Yamuna although the river is in full flow. Showing how precisely he managed this despite the high and turbulent waters would have played up his smartness and determination as a leader, which Panipat obviously does not want to do, but as a consequence a potentially great scene with spiffing special effects just never happens.

Then of course there is the minor matter of facts. Contrary to what the closing text on screen says,  avoids saying and implies, in reality the loss to Abdali in the Battle of Panipat grievously affected the Marathas, stalled the spread of their empire in India and in the long run laid the ground for the establishment of most of India as a British colony.

This much laypersons know if they paid attention to their school books. Hopefully a historian will watch this film and offer us a more detailed analysis, but until then a few hours of research even by a non-expert reveals reasons for the Marathas’ failure at Panipat that the film intentionally skips, thus robbing it of additional layers. According to the film, Sadashivrao lost due to limited resources and betrayals by four key allies, a point stressed in the choice of title, Panipat: The Great Betrayal. What it does not mention at all is what critics of the Peshwa say, that among other issues, Sadashivrao was a poor diplomat and did not know the north well, which made him a bad choice as leader for this war.

Panipat shows a large contingent of women (companions, not fellow warriors) accompanying the Maratha Army and a character in passing mentions a number of pilgrims also with them. A common sense question from even a lay viewer would be, why would an army weigh itself down in this fashion? Historians believe this too was a factor in Sadashivrao’s defeat, but Panipat is not a film to indulge in such a critique. The film’s goal is clear: to dwarf the victor (because he came from what is even now a foreign land) and idolise the vanquished (because he is our desi boy, y’know), to claim that Abdali was motivated by greed while Sadashivrao had no selfish interests. With this in mind, Sadashivrao even gets to deliver a line about how “loot” has spurred Abdali to fight for Delhi whereas he, Sadashivrao, is there to offer “raksha” (protection). Ya sure, “raksha” and not a desire to expand Maratha rule.

The lack of gray in the characterisation of Sadashivrao makes him bland and pulls down the film in its entirety. Frankly, Parvati – the medicine woman he marries despite her lower social status – is far more fascinating.

Of the main cast, Sanon’s spirited performance as Parvati proves once again that this youngster deserves more than Bollywood has been offering her so far. She is beautiful, has a commanding personality, towards the end of this film offers evidence of impressive fighting skills and can act. In Panipat she also has the benefit of a character who is better fleshed out than most of the rest. In fact, Team Gowariker seems to be making a point to Team Bhansali when Sadashivrao is shown extracting a promise from her that she will not commit Sati if he dies, in sharp contrast to Padmaavat which glorified this regressive practice and treated Rani Padmavati’s Sati like a fashion parade.

Kapoor as Sadashivrao is earnest, while Dutt deadpans his way through the role of Abdali. Zeenat Aman is wasted in a cameo. And this cannot be said enough: the casting of most of the remaining actors comes across as careless.

So yes, Panipat is shorn of Padmaavat and Kesari’s insidious intent, but it is not exactly an innocent, truthful chronicler of Indian history. Add to that its lack of polish and spark, and for all its positives, it ends up as just an average affair.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2


CBFC Rating (India):
UA 
Running time:
173 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: