June 14, 2019
Mammootty, Shine Tom Chacko, Arjun Ashokan, Lukman, Omkar Das Manikpuri, Ranjith Balakrishnan, Bhagwan Tiwari, Jacob Gregory, Dileesh Pothan, Chien Ho Liao, Easwari Rao, Cameos by Asif Ali and Vinay Forrt
Malayalam with Hindi and a sprinkling of other tongues
If you grew up admiring Mammootty and have had your heart broken repeatedly over the decades as he embraced a spiced-up, clichéd type of cinema in which his natural acting talent was drowned out by loud background scores, stereotypically lionised heroics and extreme misogyny, 2019 is a chance to heal. In recent years in particular, a dismal assembly line of gimmicky performances in machoistic films have overshadowed the very occasional relief offered by the Malayalam megastar’s moving work in gems like Munnariyippu (2014) and Pathemari (2015).
Writer-director Khalidh Rahman’s Unda comes at a time when the actor seems to be decisively changing course, offering dazzling reminders of his versatility by straddling multiple industries and delivering back-to-back brilliance in Yatra (Telugu), Peranbu (Tamil) and even Madhuraraja (Malayalam), the latter undeniably masala fare and certainly not bereft of problems, yet far removed from the decibels and triteness that had become characteristic of Mammootty’s performances in comedies. Unda seals the deal: in a survey of India’s biggest commercial male stars across languages, 2019 should be declared the year of Mammootty.
Unda (Bullet) is a Malayalam-cum-Hindi film set in Chhattisgarh where a contingent of the Kerala Police is sent to help the Indo-Tibetan Border Police during a tension-ridden election. Maoists have declared that they will not allow voting to take place. It is the job of security forces to ensure that it does.
Into this politically, culturally and geographically unfamiliar territory, Sub-Inspector Manikandan C.P. (Mammootty) and his team find themselves thrown in at the deep end. Before they left on a 40-day tour that will cover Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, they were told they must do Kerala proud. When they reach their first destination they realise that they have been orphaned, their own state government having sent them into a battle zone with limited equipment and zero training, leaving them at the mercy of angry, time-constrained, unkind, stressed-out colleagues in north India who lambast them for their cluelessness.
Unda was shot on location in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala. DoP Sajith Purushan’s work is designed to keep viewers on edge without being obviously manipulative. If you are used to the rich greens of Malayalam cinema, then the comparatively sparse, dust-encrusted forests of Bastar become a metaphor for the stark contrast between Mani’s home situation and his present circumstances. He and his associates from Kerala are brave, well-intentioned, disciplined men, but they are dragged down by dated firearms, strained supplies and their vastly different background. Most of them have never fired a gun in their lives, having not needed to so far in their relatively peaceful state. This puts them at high risk here in Bastar, where violence is the order of the day as security forces and local extremists are in constant war mode. Understandably then, they feel humiliated, helpless, betrayed, furious and afraid.
Unda is a slice-of-life saga that reads like pages out of the diary of one of these men. Khalidh Rahman steers clear of the formulae that such films usually resort to. He does not, for instance, assign a romance per cop, nor give any of them elaborate schmaltzy back stories, yet we get to know most of them well through the work dynamic between them, snatches of their repartee with each other and the occasional telephone call back home.
So there is Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) whose marriage is on the rocks and who vents his aggression on his colleagues. Girish (Arjun Ashokan) is a happy-go-lucky youngster who has been pulled away from preparations for his impending wedding. And Biju (Lukman) is growing tired of being targeted by his fellow policemen with casteist banter and slurs. This motley crew has to be held together by Mani Sir whose popularity is sorely tested when his juniors realise he is pretty much at sea in Bastar.
One of the many engaging aspects of Unda is the way it has a bit of a laugh at our expense after setting us up to expect the sort of standard treatment that has come to be identified with Mammootty and Mohanlal films. So the screenplay delays Mammootty's introductory scene, as his big commercial films often do these days, but it then deflates anyone anticipating a grand entry for Mammukka complete with heralding music and his trademark swagger – instead we get to first meet Mani in a quietly amusing crowd scene. During one confrontation, the volume of Prashant Pillai’s otherwise beautifully understated, localised background score does suddenly rise, but it does not giganticise Mammukka in the way most other films do, instead in a tragi-comic fashion it serves to underline his endearing vulnerability here. Mani is far removed from the invincible, glamourised, trigger-happy policeman Mammootty has played a million times in his long career.
Unda then is often funny, despite its grave setting. There is also a sweet simplicity to the team spirit of Mani’s men.
Ultimately though, like Dr Biju’s Kaadu Pookunna Neram (2017) starring Rima Kallingal and Indrajith Sukumaran, what Unda leaves us with is an overwhelming sadness at the realisation that these policemen, members of a much-hated profession, are in their own way a victim of the system that daily threatens the lives of Bastar’s tribals. A local man called Kunalchand (Peepli Live’s Omkar Das Manikpuri making his Mollywood debut here) laments that he is in the firing line of both the Maoists and the police, because the Maoists think he is a police informer and the police simply assume he is a Maoist, this eternal round of suspicion leaving space for another enemy altogether to invade their peace. The Kerala Police team are not as impoverished and desperate as Kunalchand, but they too are pawns in the hands of larger forces who take advantage of their need for employment.
That said, Unda does not paint these policemen as unflinchingly flawless, nor dismiss the north India-based security personnel as unmitigated nasties. Bhagwan Tiwari’s Kapil Dev, for instance, at first does come across as unfairly impatient and mean – observe how he is initially contemptuous of Mani & Co because they do not know Hindi, as though it is his right to demand that they do – but we see other sides to him as the film rolls along.
And remember that Biju is taunted not by these newcomers, but by the very people who travelled with him from home. The writing of Biju is elegant, believable and so illuminating, a gentle note that prejudice does not always come from the unequivocally evil but often from those who might by and large be deemed good, that bias is often so deeply ingrained in us that we do not even realise that we are giving expression to it.
Unlike Kapil Dev, Unda is respectful of language differences. If you buy a ticket for a Malayalam film it is reasonable to expect that the film will be in Malayalam, yet many Mollywood films feature dialogues in various languages (especially Tamil) without subtitling them for the benefit of its primary audience who are Malayalam speakers. Unda not only features English subtitles throughout for the benefit of non-Malayalam-speaking viewers, but it also has Malayalam subtitles embedded in the print through large swathes of the film’s Hindi dialogues – the latter are missing in some places, but the fact that they are there at all is a refreshing change. Mahesh Narayanan’s Take Off is another rare recent film that did likewise.
Although there is a lot to recommend in Unda, the complete absence of the female voice in the narrative is troubling. The women who do appear in the story are so marginal that they may as well have not been there. In this area, Kaadu Pookunna Neram scores considerably over Unda. Women are usually the biggest sufferers in any conflict situation, and to ignore them completely when you otherwise show so much sensitivity in the treatment of a delicate subject, is just inexcusable. The marginalisation of women was an issue with the director’s first film too – Anuraga Karikkin Vellam gave more screen time to women but failed to enter their minds unlike its male leads.
Unda could have also done without the distant exotic figure that Mani keeps seeing in Chhattisgarh. If the idea was to convey a man’s anxieties translating into hallucinations, I wish it had been done without playing on the stereotype of the Adivasi held by city-based viewers.
It is precisely because there is so much to love in Unda that these issues are disappointing.
Expecting the unexpected is par for the course for Malayalam film buffs, but it still takes a moment to get used to Unda. Not because its story, setting and treatment are unique (they are), but because Mammootty agreed to subsume his stardom in a role. It is such a pleasure to see this great artiste so thoroughly inhabiting a role that at least for the 2 hours plus of Unda’s running time, he becomes a distant memory because S.I. Manikandan C.P. is all he will let us see.
His ensemble of co-stars are equally credible and real. Lukman as Biju, for one, is sheer perfection. And Shine Tom Chacko switches smoothly chameleon-like from the repulsive Alwin in Ishq just recently to the many shades of Unda’s Jojo – miserable, fearful, unwilling to admit to his fears, likeable and unlikeable in equal measure. Jojo’s sketchy grasp of Hindi gives Unda one of its most hilarious scenes.
Of all the art lovers in this world, the Malayalam film follower is especially blessed. I cannot believe my good luck that I live in an era when Madhu C. Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights, Aashiq Abu’s Virus, Manu Ashokan’s Uyare and Khalidh Rahman’s Unda have all come to theatres in.the.same.year.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: