Monday, February 26, 2024

All India Rank: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you” (Review 798)

Release date:

February 23, 2024


Varun Grover


Bodhisattva Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Geeta Agarwal, Shashi Bhushan, Sheeba Chaddha, Neeraj, Ayush Pandey, Saadat Khan




Tum ladkon ke akal mein phaphoond laga hota hai kya?” (Have you boys got fungus on your brains?) Sarika Kumari asks her classmate Vivek Singh in the new Hindi film All India Rank. It’s the sort of throwaway line that indicates the user’s comfort with the tongue. 


The ease with which Sarika slips phaphoond into the right context makes it my word of the week, though nasudda hogs the limelight in All India Rank since Vivek is asked the meaning at one point. (I won’t tell you his answer.) 


It is no surprise that All India Rank has the feel of a film written by someone who takes pleasure in language. It is after all the directorial debut of Varun Grover who rose to fame and acclaim with his lyrics for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), then sealed his reputation by writing Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). Grover has also written this film, which was premiered last February at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam and is now in Indian theatres. 


Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) in All India Rank is one of the foremost supporting players in the story of Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), a teenager from Lucknow who arrives in Kota in 1997 to prepare for the IIT entrance test. Kota is the Mecca of coaching classes for IIT aspirants or, as Vivek’s father R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan) puts it, it is “coaching ka Haridwar”. 


Vivek has been dragged by Singh Senior into a race he does not care for, while Sarika runs with passion and for herself. A parent forcing his dreams on a child and the pressure to gain admission to one of India’s most sought after educational institutions are only the backdrop against which All India Rank unfolds as an observational, almost meditative portrait of what can best be summarised as “a year in the life of Vivek from 1990s India”. 


The desperation and despondency of some of the leads in other Hindi films dealing with career choices, India’s education system and so on are not to be found here. All India Rank is not 3 IdiotsTamasha or 12th Fail. The pressure-cooker existence of the impoverished Manoj from All India Rank is a far cry from Vivek’s situation – the latter has relative privilege as the only child of lower-middle-income parents. Vivek is unhappy at being pushed into a profession he does not want, but he does not get depressed, unlike Ranbir Kapoor’s character from Tamasha. Viveks exist too. 


All India Rank is semi-autobiographical. Grover himself is an IITian, but the film is left open-ended, perhaps to make a point that it can hardly be viewed as a climax if a disinterested kid gets into a coveted college. All India Rank is not about a triumph, it is about a journey. 


Grover’s film, edited by Sanyukta Kaza, has a calm vibe and an air of innocence. Its low-key sense of humour is written into both the conversations and the pleasant music (lyrics by Grover, original songs and background score by Mayukh-Mainak). The unhurried demeanour and unmelodramatic presentation of even its most dramatic moments convey an impression that little happens here. In truth, it is packed with thoughtful character development and discreet socio-political commentary. 


In a sense, Vivek is an unlikely protagonist. He is unexcited by IITs but he doesn’t fight his Dad too much, he dabbles in rebellion but soon gets back on track, he’s nice but slightly bland. He grows in his own way though. In any case, even a seemingly bland individual is the hero of their own story, and even such a person has his moments, as we see with Vivek. 


Besides, the boy is surrounded by interesting people – the feisty Sarika, their friend who pretends he’s not studying when in fact he does, parents who evolve, an easygoing mother (Geeta Agarwal) and a man who sees his son’s entry into IIT as a passport to elevating his own social stature. 


The newcomers and veterans in the cast are uniformly endearing and real. Geeta Agarwal and Shashi Bhushan infuse warmth into Vivek’s parents’ close bond. Sheeba Chaddha is capable of being harsh as spikes on screen, but in All India Rank she brings an unexpected softness to Kalpana Bundela, the queen of IIT coaching in Kota, who keeps the mood light in class.  


Among the film’s winning qualities is the authenticity in the recreation of the era in which it is set, through dialogues, Prachi Deshpande’s meticulous production design and revisitations of old songs. In 1997, telephones with whirring dials were the norm and the Nirma detergent powder advertisement was a reigning pop culture reference. The detailing of the time is charming. 


This was the decade in which economic liberalisation, Mandal and the Babri Masjid demolition permanently altered India’s DNA. The script does not spell out any of this, but slivers of the politics of that era and of the present are an unobtrusive presence in the writing. 


Azaadi” in the 1990s was not yet a word that could land you in jail, but as we see in the film, queasiness over Urdu was very much the norm and Indian was already a country that valued its national symbols more than its people. 


I’ll leave you to spot the messaging that dots the film, including the manner in which the writer-director tests the liberal viewers’ obliviousness to anti-minority stereotyping in Hindi cinema by seeming to present a stereotype, then turning it on its head. No spoilers here – you will hopefully recognise that episode when you see it. Compare it to the mischief played by the writer-director of last year’s OMG 2, who placed three minority community members in his all-Hindu universe in a north Indian temple town, wrote all three of them as jerks, and picked one of them to torment a schoolmate over his penis size, thus setting off a chain of events that almost destroyed the boy. 


In the past 10 years, much of Hindi filmdom has bowed and scraped before the right-wing through works that demonise religious minorities, marginalise the influence of minority cultures on India, and erase every achievement of non-BJP governments and prime ministers. All India Rank stands out from this obeisant crowd with almost indiscernible defiance. Don’t go looking for a sermon or lengthy exposition. What we get instead is a word here, a brief chat there, a quote on a wall, a passing image on TV – Grover worships at the altar of the God of small things in All India Rank


The film is not about any of this though, just as it is not about IIT. Grover leaves us free to note his politics if we wish, or to enjoy All India Rank as a sweet little film about “a time of innocence, a time of confidences”, to borrow from the American songwriter Paul Simon’s Bookends (1968). 


Unlike most coming-of-age sagas, All India Rank does not feature any grand awakening or drastic change in the central character’s plans by the close. Yet, it tugs at the heart. The film is like photographs we take of regular days, pictures that don’t commemorate a birth, death, graduation or anniversary but instead freeze frame the spaces in between when most of life occurs. Those are the days that get us to our milestones, and our stories are incomplete without them. 


In choosing to make All India Rank – and make it in precisely the way he does – Grover subscribes to the Paul Simon school of thought. “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” (Bookends again)


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   


Running time:

101 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Manjummel Boys: Thinly written, inconsistent but ultimately rewarding survival drama (Review 797)

Release date:

February 22, 2024




Soubin Shahir, Sreenath Bhasi, Deepak Parambol, Chandu Salimkumar, Khalidh Rahman, Ganapathi S. Poduval, Balu Varghese, Abhiram Radhakrishnan, Arun Kurian, Lal Jr, Vishnu Reghu 


Malayalam with Tamil 


Jeevithathil stuck aayitulla paara.” That’s how one of the key players in the new Malayalam film Manjummel Boys, describes a precariously poised, giant boulder that he sees while wandering around Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu with a gaggle of man-children. His words are appropriately poetic and thoughtful for the setting, in a departure from the gang’s unruliness and loudness until then. The contrast is emblematic of the effect that nature can have on even the most restless of humans, and offers an insight into what Manjummel Boys might have been if it had lived up to the potential of its premise all the way. As things stand, this survival thriller cum coming-of-age saga is outstanding in part yet thinly written and inconsistently toned for the most part. 


Manjummel Boys features an ensemble of boisterous buddies – all of them men, all barring one of them young, all of them old enough to be deemed terribly immature for their age – in a decade before cellphones and social media had flooded our world. Manjummel is the name of a locality in Kochi with which the ‘boys’ christen themselves. Their wayward existence is disrupted by a tragic turn of events during their hill station sojourn that tests their spirit and their relationships. 


The film is written and directed by Chidambaram who notched up a hit with his directorial debut Jan-E-Man. The latter smoothly and effectively combined a sense of humour with grim themes such as depression, separation and death. Manjummel Boys aims at a drastic shift in mood from light-heartedness at first to utter gloom tempered by hope, but without the same finesse.


The narrative kicks off by introducing us to the rambunctiousness and camaraderie of these men-who-are-still-boys. The friends are captured making merry at a wedding, engaged in fun and games including a bout of tug of war, hanging out, planning an out-station trip, and at last, actually making that trip. This goes on for what feels like an endless stretch replete with clichés that are rampant in Malayalam male bonding chronicles. In these passages, they shout at rather than speak to each other, noise is used as a substitute for substance and storytelling verve, and precious length that could have been spent on character development is squandered away. 


For the record, it is not essential for survival flicks to create character arcs before the high drama of the central plot takes over. The point here is that Chidambaram does spend a lot of time with the ‘boys’ before disaster strikes, but does not make effective use of that period. Later, it becomes clear that their activities in that portion foreshadowed their actions in the second half, and showcasing their layaboutery early on was a way of stressing their strength of character later on. Too bad that this was done through repetitive, formulaic scenes shorn of depth. 


There are lots of familiar faces and names in this crowd: Sreenath BhasiSoubin Shahir (who is also one of the producers), Deepak Parambol, Ganapathi S. Poduval, Arun Kurian, Balu Varghese and Abhiram Radhakrishnan among them. Half these characters would have been indistinguishable from each other if they weren’t played by recognisable actors.  


After much yelling and posing around at scenic spots, towards the end of their stay in Kodaikanal the group decide on a last-minute stop before heading home. Their destination is Devil’s Kitchen a.k.a. Guna Cave, nicknamed after the Tamil cult classic Gunaa (1991) starring Kamal Haasan and Roshni that was shot there. The men continue to act idiotically, but now Chidambaram thankfully also finds space for calm as Shyju Khalid’s camera roams around in awe of the mountains, running its eye over and between rock faces, deep into caves and high above the land, examining the dramatic arrangements of trees and rocks engineered by natural forces. 


The tiresome scenes that preceded Manjummel Boys’ arrival at Guna Cave become a distant memory when an accident caused by the men’s irresponsible conduct turns their holiday into a nightmare. The shock of that turning point, the suspense and technical accomplishments of the film from then on – intelligent sound design by Shijin Hutton and Abhishek Nair, and intelligent use of Sushin Shyam’s music complementing the cinematographer’s imaginative exploration of the location – compensate for the continuing limitations in the writing. 


In short, Manjummel Boys is an uneven experience. On the one hand, the shooting of the Guna Cave area and the treatment of the twist are impeccable. On the other hand, the scripting continues to be patchy and unsophisticated. The first flashback to the characters’ childhood leading into their  behaviour in desperate circumstances in Kodaikanal is well done. But it gets predictable when it happens again, and then again when their seemingly purposeless shenanigans before the interval come of use in rescue operations. 


The last half hour is packed with nail-biting tension despite this. 


Manjummel Boys is challenging for another reason. Malayalam and Tamil are fitted naturally into the script, but there were no subtitles played in the hall in Delhi where I watched it. While this could have been the multiplex management’s mess-up (even when producers subtitle their films, theatres in Delhi very often don’t bother to play the subs), a question remains for the makers themselves: since Manjummel Boys’ primary language is Malayalam, why are Malayalam subtitles not embedded in the print itself throughout the Tamil dialogues (in the way they are in one portion depicting characters in Tamil Nadu regaling the visitors from Kerala with lore surrounding Guna Cave, its recent history and mythology)? In its present shape, the film is inaccessible not only to non-Malayalam speakers in that particular hall, it is tough even for Malayalam speakers who do not know Tamil.


The Malayalam film industry does not often visit the survival genre, and on those rare outings it has a mixed tracked record. Helen (2019) and Malayankunju (2018) are recent examples that got it right. Like these two, most survival films tend to be intense studies of human nature. They need not be. Manjummel Boys’ problem is that it is not satisfied with action and suspense alone. It wants to be profound but can only partially pull it off. For one, the tribute to Gunaa has not been thought through. If the iconic Tamil film was merely the motivation that spurs the ‘boys’ of Manjummel to visit Guna Cave it would have made sense. However, pointed references are made to Gunaa through song and dialogue that gradually draws a parallel between the pivotal relationship in the earlier film and the willingness of the ‘boys’ here to give up their lives for each other in the end. But Gunaa was not about a healthy love or friendship, it was about unhealthy obsession and delusion. Kamal’s character in that film was mentally unwell, he abducted a woman with whom he believed he had a divine connection, and ultimately preferred death over life without her. To evoke nostalgia for the lovely music of that film is all very well, but the concerted mindless effort to evoke nostalgia for the ‘love’ and ‘sacrifice’ in Gunaa makes Manjummel Boys both intellectually pretentious and intellectually lightweight.


Text on screen post-climax reveals that Manjummel Boys is based on the true story of a bravery award winner called Siju David. Knowing that what happened at Guna Cave in Manjummel Boys actually happened in real life adds a layer of chills to the better half of this flawed, partly rewarding film. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.5   


Running time:

135 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB  

Wednesday, February 21, 2024


Release date:

Festival: January 2023

Theatrical: February 22, 2024


Don Palathara


Vinay Forrt, Divya Prabha, Mathew Thomas, Nilja K. Baby, Abhija Sivakala, Jolly Chirayath, Prathapan K.S., Jitin Puthanchery, Sajitha Madathil




(This review was written and first published in February 2023 right after Family had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam)


In the higher reaches of the mountains of Idukki, in a village thick with verdure and hypocrisy, a man called Sony makes everyone’s business his own. This magnificent, densely forested region with its contemplative atmosphere is ideal for a story in which a lot transpires below the surface but an entire community noiselessly conspires to sweep its skeletons under a carpet.


Sony (Vinay Forrt) is the heart of the local populace. It would not be accurate to describe him as a busybody since the people rely on his help. He is always around in good times and in bad – attending weddings and funerals, chipping in with household chores, counselling the youth, drawing them into community service, supporting a bereaved family, volunteering when the parish priest asks – which is all so great that it’s hard to pin down the reason why it is so acutely discomfiting right from the start to watch this man roam among them.


When Sony sees a pregnant woman (Divya Prabha) executing a physical task in her courtyard, he rushes over to take over from her. When another woman (Abhija Sivakala) needs to pluck the fruit off a tree on her grounds, she does not hire workers – Sony does the job. If your kid is struggling at school, who do you turn to for tuitions? Answer: Sony. If you suffer a tragedy, who walks an extra mile for you? Sony. Genial, solicitous Sony whose actions go above and beyond the community spirit that is the norm here.


A gnawing suspicion soon arises though. Is Sony helpful because he is genuinely kind-hearted? Or are there other possibilities? Perhaps his concern and consideration are excuses to gain proximity to you. Perhaps he is that guy who strategically earns your trust so that you won’t notice when you glimpse questionable conduct, but if you do, you will be bullied into shutting up by those who prefer to look the other way. Family is not, however, about him alone.


Written by Don Palathara and Sherin Catherine, directed and edited by Don, Family in its entirety is a portrait of a repressed, conservative society. The location, blanketed with thick greenery and a resounding quiet, is in itself a metaphor for the silences that blanket uncomfortable truths. The film also engages with the very different reactions to a man and a woman who are deemed to have brought shame on the kutumbam. It is purportedly about one place at a certain time, but it’s really about Everyplace Everytime, whenever and wherever in the world folks have colluded to keep the secrets they are ashamed of “in the family”.


In the very first scene, an important character tells a boy that a leopard won’t attack a person unless threatened. The wild feline in the forest instinctively follows a code that Homo sapiens themselves do not. Family spotlights a very human penchant for attacking to oppress rather than for nourishment or self-defence, and a community’s willingness to provide camouflage even if it means endangering its own by letting the predator run free. 


Family’s writer-director team choose to mirror their characters’ mindset and behaviour by leaving most things unsaid and unseen. Renganaath Ravee’s sound design and Basil C.J’s music exemplify their vision. When the latter’s score initially floats in, it takes a minute to distinguish it from the sounds of nature that dominate most of the film.


The poetry in its minimalism and unbelievably perceptive observations make Family a breath-taking experience.


Given one of the most beautiful locations on Earth, DoP Jaleel Badusha mines it for maximum effect even while employing a subdued palette. The exquisite shots emerging from his explorations of the area (in addition to an unexpected scene boasting of some rather impressive CGI) elevate Family to a meditational experience.


The spare narrative caused me some confusion in the opening half as I tried to figure out who is who and related how to whom among the smaller roles. In those moments, I wished the camera had spent just a bit more time with each one and had looked squarely at them – instead of the angles from which they were shot – so that their faces were imprinted on my memory, but even through those passages, my sense of disquiet about the bigger picture remained.


The camera in the film gives off a vibe of being both an aloof bystander and a knowing insider. It rarely moves close to an individual and some of the most horrific acts in the storyline occur off screen, but what happens in the viewer’s line of sight consistently serves as a warning bell. Note the vantage point in a scene in which a man is shown in conversation with another. There is a certain type of man every woman has met: the fellow who invades your space without actually touching you, his hands hovering too close to the area around your chest or thighs as he speaks, all the while maintaining a pretence that he is unaware of your unease and hyper-alertness. As a woman, it chilled me to the bone that I was witnessing the exact same scenario on screen here, with one crucial difference: in place of a woman was a boy.


It is clear from Don’s filmography that he is fascinated by and immensely knowledgeable about both Christianity and his native Idukki. Christian rituals, customs and imagery are everywhere in Family. The film’s  account of local Malayali Christian practices is as educational as it is entertaining. Of particular interest is a pre-wedding function that features an older man on stage play-acting dressing up the young husband-to-be. At one such event I recently attended in Kerala, the groom’s uncle was such a lively, funny guy who kept us, his audience, in splits, that the moroseness of the guests at the ceremony in Family seems hilarious in contrast.


In his most prominent film roles so far, Vinay Forrt has played characters whose shortcomings were tempered by a layer of innocence bordering on naiveté. Vimal Sir in Premam, Sreenivasan Masha in Thamaasha and David Christudas in Malik were all flawed, not terrible. In Kismath, on the other hand, his character aimed an aggressive nastiness at the hapless leads. Vinay’s challenge in Family is to steer clear of both these spaces. Sony masks his worst side in a package of affability and thoughtfulness, although no one can be sure that that is what he does. Vinay is pitch perfect in giving Sony a barely discernible unsettling presence without being in-your-face repulsive. This is a deeply involved actor acing his most difficult role yet.   


Divya Prabha is just emerging from a year in which she won all-round acclaim playing the beleaguered Reshmi in Ariyippu (Declaration) that was premiered at Locarno. She joins an ensemble cast of wonderfully naturalistic artistes to play the conflicted and hesitant Rani who is yet brave enough to articulate a prickly question that no one has asked so far in Family


Don Palathara has built his career on making films on his own terms, giving mainstream clichés a wide berth yet not fitting entirely into the middle-of-the-road nature of the new Malayalam New Wave. His Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam a.k.a. The Joyful Mystery has been his most high-profile work among Indian film-goers so far. In terms of cinematic idiom, Family more closely resembles his fable-like 1956, Madhyathiruvithamkoor (1956, Central Travancore). Along with his co-writer, he gives this film a lived-in feel, an air of: we have been here, met these people and know what they hide in their closeted minds. The director is present in this village, making mental notes, enabling viewers to drink it all in, not as outsiders staring at a screen but as co-travellers standing beside him and seeing through his eyes. He is not looking in on alien beings to tell an exotic tale in Family. He is not othering the minority community whose story he chronicles, he is normalising them, using the specifics of their culture and conservatism to drive home a universal point.


Family does not follow the revved-up beats conventionally demanded by commercial cinema, it follows the rhythms of life. And it’s a masterpiece.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 4.5   


Running time:

111 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 


This review was originally published under the headline Poetic minimalism brilliantly used to capture a society sweeping its skeletons under a carpet” on Firstpost in February 2023


Saturday, February 17, 2024


Release date:

February 15, 2024


Rahul Sadasivan 


Mammootty, Sidharth Bharathan, Arjun Ashokan, Amalda Liz, Manikandan R. Achari




Rahul Sadasivan’s Bramayugam comes to theatres two years after Bhoothakaalam in which he deftly wove themes of mental health, care giving, substance abuse and other pressing concerns into a supernatural/psychological horror drama. Bhoothakaalam starring Revathy and Shane Nigam was terrifying and thoughtful in equal measure, but the burden of expectations is not the reason why Bramayugam does not match up to it. The reasons are simpler.


Behind the gloss and beyond an in-form Mammootty, Bramayugam is not scary despite its promising atmospherics. It is also flimsy for a considerable stretch of time until it begins to lay out its caste politics. The film’s allegorical take on caste proves to be muddled and insensitive.


Bramayugam (The Age of Madness) is set in 17th century Malabar where Thevan (Arjun Ashokan), a starving folk singer, chances upon a decrepit mansion belonging to a Brahmin family. The grouchy caretaker (Sidharth Bharathan) is unwelcoming. Both are placed low on the ladder of the caste system, and the elderly master of the house Kodumon Potti (Mammootty) belittles the latter for being disdainful towards the visitor, welcoming the young man warmly instead. 


Kodumon Potti rarely has guests. This could be because his home is in what appears to be a land far far away. Or perhaps not. Thevan soon realises that all is not as it seems in this decaying homestead where mysterious sounds are heard from areas declared off limits for him. It is not long before we learn that he is a pawn in a game in which the dice is controlled by an unexplained force. 


Sadasivan gets Bramayugam off to a good start by creating a sense of mystery in the forest where we meet Thevan. This tone is sustained till the end with the aid of Shehnad Jalal’s camerawork, Jothish Shankar’s art direction and Jayadevan Chakkadath’s low-key sound design. 


Bramayugam is defined by its magnificence, ranging from scenes of desolate natural beauty to the eerie innards of Kodumon Potti’s home. Even shots of a man cooking in a darkened kitchen look ominous here, as are close-ups of the handful of characters in this sagaThe decision to make this a black-and-white film further enriches the imagery and adds to its folklorish feel. 


Giant landscapes are framed in Bramayugam in such a manner as to dwarf the people in the story and intimidate the viewer, in a style I’ve come to love in recent years in chilling Scandinavian thrillers. The resemblance is confined to the look. Bramayugam threatens to turn frightening, but never actually does. After a while, the spectacle is window dressing for a thin story that picks elements from Indian mythology– a yakshi here, a chaathan there – without saying anything novel until it reveals its flawed hand in the matter of caste. 


Initially, Sadasivan makes an insightful point when he shows Kodumon Potti luring Thevan with a pretence of egalitarianism before entrapping him. However, with this episode of truth telling, the film is being as deceptive as Kodumon Potti himself, because Sadasivan’s larger point turns out to be that dominant communities are no more power hungry than those they’ve historically oppressed, and the sole difference between them is that one lot hold the reins in a social system while the others are its victims for now. This is an uninformed blanket statement. On the one hand, it’s true we’re currently witnessing the outcome of a once-oppressed people transforming into oppressors – read: the genocide in Gaza being committed by Israel, the country formed in the 1940s as a homeland for white European Jews after the Holocaust. It is just as true though that this has not been the journey of all persecuted communities. Notice how countries formerly colonised by Europeans have not run around the world colonising other countries since they themselves got Independence. Notice that post-apartheid South Africa is vocally advocating for Palestinians. Notice the scores of white Jewish people, including Holocaust survivors, protesting against the genocide. Know too that Israel’s conduct is a result of numerous factors including but not confined to white racism that prompted post World War II Europe to consider the brown people of Palestine dispensable, and Europe and North America’s oil interests in the Middle East. 


Bramayugam’s script does not explore the theme of oppression with depth. Instead it chooses to whitewash oppressors. The writing also betrays a troubling upper-caste view of caste on two fronts. 


(Spoiler alert) The earliest clue that a certain character is not the Brahmin individual he claims to be comes from his food habits. It’s not that this person eats meat, but the savagery with which he eats it that is supposed to be a hint. Portraying meat-eaters as crude, equating meat-eating with animalism and associating unsophisticated meat consumption with Muslims and ‘the other’ has become a hallmark of the right-wing ecosystem and right-wing Hindi cinema in the Modi era (PadmaavatPanipatTanhajiAdipurushAnimal). Bramayugam employs the same symbolism in the context of caste in the Malayalam language. 


Bramayugam’s thesis seems to be that Europeans were able to colonise India due to power struggles among Indians. While disunity in the subcontinent did help Europeans, the problem with Bramayugam is that it implies an equivalence between Brahmins and Dalits in this regard, and trains its accusatory finger primarily – metaphorically – at the downtrodden. For a metaphor to work, it must work all the way, but in Bramayugam what we are shown, literally, is white intruders taking advantage of  a ‘half caste’ and a lower caste person being at loggerheads after escaping a demonic tyranny, while the first victim of the battle among Indians in the narrative was a Brahmin. More to the point, a Brahmin we don’t meet at all, as a result of which we don’t get to determine whether he was good, bad or evil, while we get to see the evil in the rest of the social order. 


It’s also strange that in the almost-all-male world that Sadasivan builds in Bramayugam, the only female presence is a beautiful, blood-sucking seductress.


Amalda Liz as the yakshi is just an eye-catching body and face on display. Manikandan R. Achari gets similar dismissive treatment in the opening scenes. This is the second film in three weeks to reduce this gifted actor to a prop. The other was Malaikottai Vaaliban. Women are objectified in cinema worldwide, Malayalam cinema is objectifying this man probably because most writers are unable or unwilling to envision a black-skinned actor as anything but exotica. 


Only three roles count in Bramayugam. Mammootty and Sidharth Bharathan deserve as much credit for the film’s menacing air as its visual landscape does. In the Indian arena, it takes courage for a star as big as Mammootty to take on a role that is meant to be as repugnant as this character is, but he does it with evident relish. Both actors also benefit immensely from the embrace of Shehnad Jalal’s cameraArjun Ashokan’s performance is not quite as immersive as theirs here, but he does a fair job. 


Bramayugam is a great-looking film based on a script that quickly runs out of steam, until it revs itself up to take a terribly skewed stand on caste and colonialism.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 1.5   


Running time:

139 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Thursday, February 1, 2024


Release date:

January 25, 2024


Lijo Jose Pellissery 


Mohanlal, Katha Nandi, Sonalee Kulkarni, Manoj Moses, Danish Sait, Hareesh Peradi, Sanjana Chandran, Manikandan R. Achari




Malaikottai Vaaliban features some of the most sensational images and sound ever created for the Indian screen. Sadly though, it is proof that visual and aural stimulation alone do not guarantee greatness. Writer-director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new venture is a feast for the eyes and ears, but it is also stretched to nearly three hours with a plot and character graphs undeserving of that length. This unfortunate combination gives the film its defining characteristic: its soullessness. 


Starring Mohanlal as the eponymous protagonist, Malaikottai Vaaliban is a tale of a legendary warrior in an unspecified age gone by. Vaaliban travels across the land in an unassuming bullock cart with his foster parent, Ayyanar (Hareesh Peradi), and the latter’s son, Chinnappaiyyan (Manoj Moses). When they reach a village or town, Chinnappaiyyan announces their arrival with loud proclamations about Vaaliban’s past exploits. At the first stop that we see, Vaaliban vanquishes a local muscle man with more ease than Sunny Deol uprooting a handpump from the ground or Superman stopping a speeding train with bare hands. His confrontations get increasingly more challenging, but none equal an enemy he encounters who combats him through underhand means. 


With deliberate ambiguity about the time and place in which this story unfolds and the ethnicity of those among whom it is set, Pellissery makes it clear that he wishes to transport us to a mythical world where cultures, races and even geography cannot be pinned down. Most of the characters speak Malayalam, but at at least one arid location, there are faces in the crowd that look more like the weather-beaten visages found in the Thar or Kutch or in the dustbowls of Haryana. The dancer Rangapattinam Rangarani has a Tamil-sounding name but facial features more familiar in west or north India, her attire and jewels seem inspired by Maharashtra, and she is played by the Marathi film star Sonalee Kulkarni. Katha Nandi who is cast as Chinnappaiyyan’s lover Jamanthipoova is Bengali and looks it, while the Kannada cinema actor Danish Sait steps into the role of Vaaliban’s foe Chamathakan. In most films, this mix ‘n’ match might have been random, but in Malaikottai Vaaliban it feels deliberate considering everything else going on here.   


At one point in this Malayalam language ecosystem, characters break into a Hindi song. The story also includes a brutal European coloniser king with a name rooted in present-day UK but speaking a language from mainland Europe. 


This heterogeneity is attractive for a while. The cast is immensely likeable and immersed in the theatrics required of them as they surrender themselves to Pellissery’s vision headlined by the all-round splendour emanating from the screen. Those grand shots of vast barren terrain, a rust coloured stole with a sequinned trim being dragged dramatically on the ground, the golden lights of a crowded bazaar in the night, a primary character introduced through shadow play, a crimson-dominated palette that matches the blood splashed across a stone wall at one point, a Colosseum-like arena (more Game of Thrones than Gladiator) and bird’s eye views of human bodies dancing, fighting, advancing towards each other – they are all framed with loving attention to each dot, line and tint on cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan’s colossal canvas, complemented by Gokuldas’ art direction and costumes by Sujith Sudhakaran and Ratheesh Chammravattom


Malaikottai Vaaliban’s soundscape – with sound design by Renganaath Ravee and music by Prashant Pillai – is just as fabulous. Its signature refrain resembles a male mob letting out their breath in a collective whoosh. 


Each of these elements is spectacular as an independent entity, but when woven together, the overall package feels self-indulgent after a while with too much use of slow motion, too many aerial shots and too little substance in the script written by P.S. Rafeeque and Pellissery. People here are treated less like people and more like props, epitomised by the sinful under-utilisation of Manikandan R. Achari in a bit part as a jailed slave.


As the thinly sketched characters begin to weigh the narrative down, these embellishments are exposed as just that: embellishments, trying to convince us that there is more to Malaikottai Vaaliban than its luminous epidermal layer. Truth: there is not. I kept willing myself to be drawn into the story being told, but an overwhelming sense of tedium made that impossible. 


Like Deepak D. Menon’s painterly portraits of scenery, including one that “should be framed for museum display” as I wrote in my review of Padavettu (2022), a zillion moments in Malaikottai Vaaliban ought to be frozen as stills for the walls of prestigious galleries. A shot of concentric circles of humans in this film is surpassed in its beauty in recent Malayalam cinema only by Rajeev Ravi’s compositions for Thuramukham (2023). Malayalam films are known for delivering world-class camerawork even on tiny budgets, but these three films, regrettably, prioritise/d visual appeal over characterisation. Malaikottai Vaaliban is the cinematic equivalent of a gorgeous, lifeless mannequin rather than the pulsating life form that a quality film always is.


Pellissery has created abstract art earlier too, but unlike the seminal Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakam (2023), here we get abstractness for the heck of it. His influences and references in Malaikottai Vaaliban are as disparate as they come, ranging from Westerns to samurai cinema, conventional Indian action drama  the sort with outlandish stunts performed by omnipotent heroes exemplified by Rajinikanth  and even Tinkle Comics. The predatory Chamathakan, for one, comes across as a human cousin of the jackal Chamataka from my favourite Tinkle series, Kalia the Crow. Pellissery also replicates a scene from that most famous of Spaghetti Western-inspired Indian films, Sholay: the one in which Gabbar forces Basanti to dance on shards of glass to save Veeru. 


A game of Spot The Cultural References is not stimulus enough to stay awake through Malaikottai Vaaliban though. The only character whose skin we are allowed to look past is Ayyanar, but by the time that happens, the film is in its finale. 


Vaaliban says at one point: “What the eye has seen is the truth. What has not been seen is a lie.” The lines that ensue and a disclosure by a prominent character indicate a Rashomon Effect not visible within the space of this single film but over a span of at least two. Yes, there’s a sequel (the announcement comes in Malaikottai Vaaliban itself). I’ll explain vaguely to avoid spoilers: until the point in his life at which this film ends, Vaaliban had believed a certain something that he was told; we believed what he believed; but the events in this film are being recounted after he learnt the truth, which will now be revealed to us in Malaikottai Vaaliban 2. Sort of. I think.


Interesting idea, but it comes too late in the day to save Malaikottai Vaaliban 1. So am I looking forward to Part 2? Not really. There’s not enough coffee in the world...  

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2   


Running time:

155 minutes 


Poster courtesy: IMDB