Sunday, December 24, 2017


Release date:
December 21, 2017
Ajai Vasudev  

Mammootty, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Unni Mukundan, John Kaipallil, Mukesh, Maqbool Salmaan, Gokul Suresh, Kalabhavan Shajohn, Poonam Bajwa, Mahima Nambiar, Leena     

Since the December 2012 Delhi gangrape, which fixed the media spotlight firmly on India’s long-running feminist movement, many autorickshaws in the city have taken to carrying stickers bearing the words “This auto respects women”. It is the most tragic and ironic testament to how dangerous this city is for 50 per cent of its population and how autowallahs in particular have been known to harass female passengers in particular.
A similar irony marks director Ajai Vasudev’s Malayalam film that is in theatres this week. Masterpiece’s leading man, college professor Edward Livingston played by Mammootty, chants a mantra throughout his time on screen. “I respect women,” he says again and again and then again, clearly unconvinced by and uncommitted to his own declaration. The character’s actions suggest that the megastar has taken on this catchphrase to mock those who have slammed him over the years for the horrendously misogynistic films he has chosen to act in, including last year’s Kasaba that earned him a notice from Kerala’s Women’s Commission. His insincerity is underlined by the scorn and condescension with which he dispenses these words each time he wishes to put a woman in her place, in a film that has been made with the evident purpose of celebrating aggressive masculinity and treating women lightly.
No, I am not kidding. The hero even has this theme song playing in the background while he struts about: “He’s the man, macho macho man.” I swear I am not making this up.
Masterpiece is set in a men’s college where two gangs of students are constantly at war. Their competitiveness extends to a good-looking youngster called Vedika in a women’s college in the city who recently won a major cultural crown. Soon after they mark Vedika out as property to be duelled over, she is raped and killed. Suspicion falls on her boyfriend, which leads to a clash between students and the local police including ACP Bhavani Durga (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) and her colleague John Thekken (Unni Mukundan).

About an hour into the narrative, Edward Livingston enters the picture. He is the sort of prof that dudes consider cool because he effectively disciplines them in class but in his free time becomes one of the boys, so to speak, such that when he beats up goons to protect them, the young men on campus cheer him by yelling “goonda masha” (hooligan teacher), which the film seems to consider a compliment.
Edward, of course, proves to be a better investigator than the police, and solves the mystery over Vedika’s death. Of course. The whodunnit part of the film is no doubt suspenseful, but when the big reveal comes, its contrivances somewhat overshadow its interesting elements. For instance, the crime at the centre of the plot took place when a young woman fixes a late night rendezvous with her lover. A credible explanation is not offered for why she chose a lonely spot and that particular time. Another instance: a tubby middle-aged person is shown chucking a human body over a wall as if it were a sack of cotton, a task that perhaps a real-life WWE wrestler might be equal to.

Even the anticipation of the case being cracked is overshadowed by director Ajai Vasudev’s fan worship of Mammootty, which dominates every scene in which Livingston appears. The rape and murder are just an excuse to prove how cool Mammukka can be when he plays detective-detective. There is no dividing line here between the character and the actor, not because the actor is doing a great job of immersing himself in a role, but because he does not bother. Mammootty here is himself on screen as he has played himself in countless films through his decades-long career.
Masterpiece, in that sense, is not so much a film as it is a prop against which Mammootty leans. Everything in it is geared towards paying tribute to the star while apparently signifying Edward Livingston’s coolth. And so, Livington’s car registration number is KL02 BOSS. During his introductory scene an hour into the narrative, “Maharaja” from the college’s name on its boundary wall is highlighted, as are the words “limited edition” on the back of his Hyundai Creta. He has a signature gesture: he keeps holding up his right arm and shakes down his shining kada. Even the title is unrelated to the film’s storyline: it is an ode to him.
It is not that such swagger does not ever work. Mammootty himself has pulled it off in the past. The problem here is that these moves are so lacking in novelty and so generic, that far from being impressive, they come across as laboured and puerile. The director also seems to be working on a template already visited by the Mohanlal-starrer Velipadinte Pusthakam to slightly better effect this Onam, right down to the hero’s late entry, the much younger woman teacher who evinces romantic interest in him and a murder with a college in the backdrop.
What distinguishes Masterpiece from Velipadinte Pusthakam is the utter contempt for women pervading every cell of its being. When a classroom full of male students gawk at a pretty young teacher (Poonam Bajwa) with a sari draped low down her waist, a senior colleague (Mukesh) chides them but mutters to himself as he looks away from her slim body in embarrassment, “There is no point in scolding the students.” In his book it is the woman’s fault that those paavam, helpless young men are leering at her.
Let us pause for a moment to think of the extreme insensitivity of that line being featured in a film in which a rape – a crime usually accompanied by victim blaming – occurs shortly afterwards. The low point of this film though is that long after this gruesome assault takes place, a marginal character, the canteen guy Manniyan, makes a quip about rape. Despite the abysmal expectations Masterpiece had set up for itself by then, I was startled in that moment.
Incidentally, the aforementioned woman teacher is included in the film solely as a showpiece who is smitten by Edward, because no Mammootty or Mohanlal film these days is complete without a good-looking woman young enough to be their granddaughter falling for them. Her youthfulness is unwittingly rubbed in our faces in a scene in which she opts out of her usual saris and wears jeans and a shirt to dance with the students.
Through all this misogyny, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar stands tall as ACP Bhavani Durga, the actor’s natural screen presence defying every effort by Edward Livingston to rubbish her character. Varalaxmi conveys power effortlessly, possibly because of her own innate strength. She deserves better than to play secondary characters in macho-fests like Masterpiece and Kasaba.
The film itself squanders away whatever little potential it has in its adoration of Mammootty and its misogyny.  

Rating (out of five stars): 1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
U (because rape jokes, in the Censor Board’s view, are suitable material for children)
Running time:
160 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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