September 28, 2017
Dileep, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Mukesh, Prayaga Martin, Radhikaa Sarathkumar, Siddique, Renji Panicker, Suresh Krishna, Leena
A young politician is expelled from Kerala’s Communist Democratic Party (CDP) and joins a rival front. He fights a candidate from his original organisation to win back the seat he had to vacate when he switched parties. In the midst of the machinations against and by him, comes a crime of great daring, and all clues appear to point towards the same individual.
Will an innocent person be framed? Is the guilty person feigning innocence? These are the questions that occupy us through the two hours and 38 minutes running time of Ramaleela, a new release directed by debutant Arun Gopy and starring Dileep in the lead.
Ramaleela has made news for ugly reasons so far, since it comes to theatres while its main star is in jail on charges of conspiring in the abduction and molestation of a top woman actor in Kerala. Dileep plays Ramanunni Raghavan, a youth leader and rising politician at the centre of the action in the film. The casting choice is an unwittingly appropriate reflection of the Indian reality where 49 for a man is indeed seen as youth in both cinema and politics, while women in cinema are compulsorily retired 10-15 years before that or relegated to playing sister and Mommy to men of Dileep’s age.
So anyway, Ramanunni’s father was assassinated by forces unknown to the world at the start of Ramaleela. His exit from CDP causes his mother, Comrade Ragini Raghavan, to label him a traitor, while his entry into NSF ruffles feathers there too. Ramanunni’s bête noir in CDP is Ambady Mohanan (Vijayaraghavan) while his Enemy No. 1 in NSF is Udayabhanu (Siddique)
As Ramanunni grapples with these opposing pulls, the police are called in, first to provide him with protection and later to investigate the crime mentioned at the start of this review.
Like this year’s Oru Mexican Aparatha and Sakhavu, Ramaleela too, in its own way, is an ode to Communism. Primarily though, it is a mystery story. Arun Gopy and writer Sachy complement each other well. While Sachy has a surprise for us at every turn, Gopy is confident in his direction. This is a thriller written and shot on an epic scale yet, for the most part, attention has been paid to the characters’ motivations, not the lavish cinematography and art design alone.
There are intermittent missteps, but the overall pace is so unrelenting that there is little time to think about the improbabilities and far-fetched scenarios in the film. For instance, a key character hatches an elaborate scheme, but it is unclear how that person or their collaborators found the resources for such a plan and implemented it at such short notice. A fugitive easily crosses state borders despite heavy police patrolling. Also, Ramanunni’s intention in meeting politician-turned-columnist Madhavan (Renji Panicker) is tenuous. It is as if Sachy could not think of a more credible way to introduce Ramanunni to Madhavan’s daughter Helena (Prayaga Martin).
Dileep’s insipid personality is well-suited to a role where it is important that his physicality not come across as larger-than-life and where he is to be seen as a little man, a beleaguered lone warrior, a common person who one might easily underestimate. Equally to the point, his is a clever performance – he does not set a foot wrong for even a moment in Ramaleela.
The cast is packed to the brim with artistes more charismatic than he is, but Dileep’s limited charisma serves to heighten the impact of his character’s towering intelligence and actions.
It is nice to see Prayaga Martin looking more natural here than in her dolled-up avatar in last week’s Pokkiri Simon and to see her Helena – an architect-turned-reality-TV-set-designer – serve a purpose other than to be a pretty appendage to the hero. And while the nearly 30-year age difference between Martin and Dileep conforms to Mollywood standards, what does not is Helena’s unconventional relationship with Ramanunni.
That said, it is irritating that any time a good-looking single woman and a Malayalam film’s hero share a frame, the surrounding characters compulsorily envision romance or marriage in their future. Unlike those characters, Sachy himself shows that rare hero-heroine partnership where she at least does not see matrimony as the only route to a happily ever after in her life and he too is not single-minded in the matter of his association with her. That said – yes, again – Martin’s impact is curiously feeble though Helena has a crucial hand in the proceedings.
This is a seemingly secondary element in Ramaleela. The overtly overriding factors are the games politicians play with each other and the media. Here too Team Gopy-Sachy score by not caricaturing either the netas or the journalists involved. The one slip here is a scene in which a flunkey who is trying to manipulate the media against Ramanunni is so stupid as to be caught with a phone on his person that he had used seconds earlier to leak information to the press.
Ramaleela also offers more scenes of routine policework than we are used to seeing in Indian films, which tend to either lionise or demonise cops (more the former). DySP Paulson Devassy (Mukesh), the lead investigator in the case, and his team are portrayed as real people going about their work with the constraints all Indian police face, not shorn of their own prejudices and ambitions, but also – thankfully – not sounding idiotic or ignorant to a viewer fed a diet of TV shows such as CSI and Law & Order supplemented with common sense.
Of the supporting artistes, it is only fair to single out Kalabhavan Shajohn who is highly effective – and hilarious – as Ramanunni’s secretary and shadow. The weak link is Radhikaa Sarathkumar whose turn as Comrade Ragini lacks spark.
The rape joke in Ramaleela is a tricky one. Real people in such situations do speak lightly of rape, but – unlike in other films – here it is unclear whether the film itself takes sexual violence lightly. In a situation of doubt, I am choosing to err on the side of caution and Gopy.
Ramaleela has been marketed as an expensive venture. The monetary investment is evident in the polished production and Shaji Kumar’s swish camerawork. One of the earliest scenes in the film features a particularly striking frame of Ramanunni at the centre of scores of TV news cameras and mikes covering every inch on all sides of the screen. Another, not long after, gives us an overhead night-time shot of CDP members carrying red flags and flaming torches gathered outside the gate of Ramanunni’s house while the compound itself is filled with police in uniform. It is one of several visually rich scenes in Ramaleela.
Kumar over-uses overhead shots and aerial shots after a while, but the result is so eye-catching that he can be forgiven for succumbing to temptation.
At the end of the day, grand images would have mattered little if it weren’t for the excellent execution of the suspense in Ramaleela. Gopy has delivered a gripping thriller set in Kerala’s political establishment, and succeeds in keeping the viewer guessing every step of the way. When you have a good thing going, it is important to know where to stop though. The biggest folly of his direction and Sachy’s script – both at an ideological and cinematic level – comes after the big reveal in Ramaleela. Far from being satisfied with that gasp-inducing climax, they proceed to needlessly raise the film’s pitch from that point, thus subtracting from the impact.
Worse, what follows is a leading character in the film advocating taking the law into our own hands, not merely to settle personal scores, but for the ‘larger good’, and articulating a bizarre view of what makes a Communist. Instead of a dissenting voice in the narrative, we get instead an endorsement of that anarchic stance by the most upright person in the entire saga.
That populist conversation was absolutely unnecessary, designed to tap the audience’s bloodlust and elicit cheap applause.
The caveat to this review then is that as a political commentary, Ramaleela makes sense until that disturbing discussion in the end. As a thriller though, it is thoroughly enjoyable – not in the league of, say, Drishyam but entertaining all the same.
Rating (out of five stars): **3/4
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/RamaleelaMovie/