August 31, 2017
Mohanlal, Anoop Menon, Reshma Rajan, Arun Kurian, Sarath Kumar, Salim Kumar, Priyanka Nair, Chemban Vinod Jose, Siddique, Shivaji Guruvayoor, Alencier Ley Lopez, Vijay Babu as himself
Velipadinte Pusthakam (The Book of Revelation) a.k.a. Apocalypse is the last – most intriguing – book in The Bible. It is a befuddling piece of writing attributed by some to St John the apostle of Jesus, and has divided scholars for centuries.
Lal Jose’s film of the same name is neither as esoteric nor as confounding as the title suggests. It marks the stalwart’s first team-up with one of Malayalam cinema’s biggest superstars.
Mohanlal here plays a professor whose arrival at a Christian college in a coastal fishing town marks a turning point in its troubled existence. Caste tensions run high among the students, with the children of poor fisherfolk being taunted for their humble background while the well-off lot are in turn mocked as rejects from more prestigious educational institutions. Violence between these groups is rampant when Lalettan’s character, Michael Idiculla, enters the picture.
He is an unconventional teacher and a compassionate human being who finds ways to encourage the poorer kids, demystify their lives in the minds of their financially fortunate classmates, and bring all warring sides together. However, when he suggests a fund-raising project to be executed entirely by the staff and students, the story takes unexpected turns, and we end up discovering far more than he might have wished to reveal about himself while simultaneously, and accidentally, figuring out the truth behind a crime that once rocked the town.
Parallel to these present-day happenings, we are told a tale from the past, of Vishwan (played by Anoop Menon), the man accused of his murder (Siddique) and the one who went to prison for it (Chemban Vinod Jose).
The film opens with a vicious fight on a rainy night years ago. The revelations in Velipadinte Pusthakam are the truth behind that clash as much as Idiculla’s truth.
These discoveries are not as earth-shattering as they are made out to be by their positioning in the storyline and the tone in which they’re told, but they add up to a reasonably entertaining film.
Velipadinte Pusthakam packs a lot into its 157 minutes – a mystery, mental illness, casteism, even a brief mention of male supremacy. Writer Benny P. Nayarambalam skims over most of these themes though, pivoting the narrative entirely around the hero and the whodunnit.
So don’t go looking for insights on most of these subjects. Mental health, for instance, is merely a device to further the thriller element in the film. This becomes forgivable, I guess, if you consider that at least Velipadinte Pusthakam does not perpetuate specific myths about the disorder it references, unlike so many mainstream Indian films.
The mention of caste in the story is well-intentioned, even if simplistic and risk-averse. Deep-seated prejudices are easily forgotten when the hero waves his magic wand over the community. And in the opening scenes when student gangs headed by the boys Franklin (Sarath Kumar) and Sameer (Arun Kurian) are being chided by the principal (Shivaji Guruvayoor), their discussion neatly apportions equal blame to both groups, no doubt to avoid offending relatively privileged castes who dominate the audience.
Still, the conversation – flawed though it is – is a reminder that southern Indian cinema, at the very least, acknowledges the existence of caste oppression (many films here do more than just that), unlike the Brahminical worldview pervading the north’s biggest film industry, Bollywood.
If the equation between the students had been further explored, Velipadinte Pusthakam would have had greater depth. One particularly memorable sidelight involves a boy apologising to a female collegemate for his voyeuristic behaviour. It is such a pleasure to see a college campus in a Malayalam film where male misdemeanours are not trivialised or normalised.
Unfortunately, the students are sidelined once Idiculla walks in (considerably late in the opening half, I must point out), and Velipadinte Pusthakam shifts to being his story from theirs. This is the film’s loss, somewhat like how Taare Zameen Par might have suffered if, upon Aamir Khan’s late arrival on the scene, it had become the tale of Nikumbh Sir rather than little Ishaan.
The decision to marginalise the students is one of several poorly conceived aspects of the writing. Another is the Christian clergy’s official endorsement of Vishwan despite the violent methods he would use to do good. While it is conceivable that the clergy might offer behind-the-scenes support to such a man because he helped them, the very public stance they take here in his favour – going to the extent of hanging his picture on the college wall, between the photographs of bishops – defies believability in much the same way as if Mahatma Gandhi had erected Bhagat Singh’s statue at a monument to ahimsa.
Inevitably, at one point a good-looking young woman expresses interest in marrying Michael Idiculla. This is the primary purpose served by the presence in the story of the teacher Mary, played by the charismatic Reshma Rajan from Angamaly Diaries. A conversation she has with another teacher about the age difference is hardly a saving grace, when you consider how superfluous this aside is in the script, and how silly, no different from the young housemaid’s effort to flirt with Mohanlal’s character Jayaraman in last year’s Oppam.
It’s funny – and sad – that Lalettan’s directors feel compelled to remind us that he continues to be attractive to handsome young women, as if that, and not his talent, is the measure of his hero-worthiness. Is this their definition of masculinity? Does it reveal too the star’s insecurity and his discomfort with his advancing years? Perhaps this is the velipad (revelation) of Lalettan’s filmography of the past couple of decades. Thankfully this daft interlude in the film is brief.
As it happens, Velipadinte Pusthakam is done in by its excessive awareness of Mohanlal’s stardom. Potentially interesting characters such as Sameer, Franklin and Franklin’s feisty lady friend are pushed aside, and a striking actress like Rajan is reduced to being a showpiece, all to maintain the male megastar’s primacy.
Not surprisingly, as is the case with too many commercial Malayalam films, women are hardly significant to the proceedings. While this is routine in Mollywood, it is particularly noticeable here because Idiculla asks a specific question about male dominance in a classroom one day.
Be that as it may, Lal Jose manages to keep Velipadinte Pusthakam moderately appealing with incremental doses of information about Idiculla and Vishwan. This is not a spectacular thriller, but the suspense is mildly engaging, Shaan Rahman’s music and DoP Vishnu Sarma’s visuals of the seaside location are pretty at all times, and the acting uniformly competent.
If the director had not been so conscious of Mohanlal’s stardom, he may have done a better job of tapping the actor in him. As it is, Lalettan is fair enough and Velipadinte Pusthakam is a more worthwhile Onam offering than the week’s other new release starring the other Big M of Mollywood.
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/VelipadintePusthakam/