Unda (2019)

Unda

Unda is an understated police drama set in the northern regions of India during an election. Reportedly based on a true story, the film follows a group of policemen from Kerala who are sent to safeguard voting in a remote rural area of Chhattisgarh supposedly under attack by Maoists. Mammootty sheds his star persona in the role of a police sub-inspector and is joined by an excellent support cast of assorted police, local villagers and Indo-Tibetan Border Police. With an under-prepared and inexperienced group of men facing challenges far beyond their previous experience, the film explores the differences that divide India as well as exploring the similarities that should provide unity.

The film starts in Kerala with the police team led by C.I. Mathews Anthony (Ranjith) packing up their equipment and heading north by train. But their problems start when they arrive and find their transport to the camp has been delayed. When it does turn up, instead of buses the men are put into open trucks and taken to the local ITBP camp. But here they find that there isn’t room for all of them, and SI Manikandan (Mammootty) is sent off with his small group of men to a cabin in the woods near to a small village. Once there, the men are confused by the situation and totally oblivious to the differences between their own state and the area they find themselves. Local ITBP officer Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari) does his best to explain, while his Commandant (Chien Ho Liao) is simply frustrated by their lack of knowledge. To add insult to injury, the team have no supplies. Expecting to pick up ammunition and weapons on site, Mathews and his team are dismayed to learn that all they will have is the equipment they brought. Although they send an emergency request home, it seems unlikely that anything will reach them in time, and there are rumours of Maoists throughout the area.

The police are a disparate group and argue amongst themselves as they are frightened, far from home and disadvantaged by their inability to speak the language. Despite having been a police officer for many years, Manikandan has never had to fire his gun or deal with the kind of sustained tension he has to endure in the camp. His men have their own issues too. One of the police officers has a young wife who is about to have their first baby, while another is constantly on the phone to his new fiancée. Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) is going through an acrimonious divorce caused by his infidelity. Although he keeps calling his wife, it’s not until he is faced with death that he manages to apologise for his treatment of her, and of course by that time it is far too late. Biju (Lukman) is dealing with prejudice from his colleagues because he comes from a lower caste. Although it’s passed off as ‘joking’, the hurt and alienation that the abuse causes is well portrayed and hopefully will raise some awareness that prejudice is never a ‘joking’ matter.

While Kapil Dev tries to teach the men how to survive in Chhattisgarh by turning off the lights late at night, avoiding mines in the area and keeping a low profile, the local villagers also prove a point of contention. After using up all their water by washing, the police seem totally oblivious to the hardship they have caused. When the local headman Kunalchand (Omkar Das Manikpuri) comes to explain their situation, the police are suspicious and suspect him and his family of being Maoists. But as Kunalchand later complains after his son is taken away by the ITPB and he himself is beaten by masked men, the authorities accuse the villagers of being Maoists, and the Maosits accuse them of collusion with the security forces. Whatever happens, Kunalchand and the villagers will never win and the harsh reality is that they are gradually being forced out of their homes.

When trouble comes, it isn’t Maoists who bring death and destruction – for all the talk, no Maoists are ever seen. Instead it’s corrupt politicians and their thugs who cause the biggest problem and who almost succeed in overcoming the badly outnumbered police force. The lack of support from their own leaders, corruption in the local government and lack of experience of the men themselves all conspire to put the police team in a very precarious position indeed. But it’s their own personal demons that are the biggest barriers they need to overcome.

Unda is a slow burn of a film. Most of the action consists of normal everyday activity such as patrolling the area, getting the camp ready for election day and Mankikandan’s trips back to the ITPB base to follow up on his desperate request for more bullets. Even when there are explosions or gunshots in the night, it’s the reactions of the men that are the focus of the film, rather than the activity in the woods surrounding the camp. In many ways this is more a film about India, but one contained within a tale about a group of Keralan police in a more Northern state. The big issues of language, caste, tribal rights, corruption and terrorism are all brought in to the screenplay as the small group of displaced policemen try to carry out their duties in the most hostile circumstances they have ever faced. The breakdown within the members of the group as they are subject to the constant threat of death from the Maoists and to the contempt of the ITBP is a key point, as is the camaraderie that develops between them as a result of their circumstances. This intermingling of personal issues with the weightier ones of politics and social justice is well done and although there are a few missteps, for the most part the screenplay by Khalid Rahman and Harshad works well. There are well-written moments of comedy and a good blend of personal and group-related drama. Overall, Unda is a good solid drama, well written with excellent performances and directed with a steady hand by Khalid Rahman. Well worth watching and highly rcommended.

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Paleri Manikyam

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Haridas (Mammootty) is a detective and writer, on holidays in Kerala with his girlfriend Sarayu (Gowri Munjal). He is mildly fixated on an unsolved murder that took place the night he was born, over 50 years ago. A girl called Manikyam (Mythili) from his village of Paleri was raped and killed. Sarayu is a crime analyst and she offers to work with him on the mystery.

Haridas goes back to Paleri and does a lot of exposition by talking to the camera, and sometimes to Sarayu. He walks through events on the fateful night as he knows them, threading in amongst the action from that day. It’s a bit like a stage drama, with him as the narrator.

Her brother and father carry Manikyam to a nearby town for the police investigation. It’s obvious that her mother-in-law Cheeru (Shweta Menon) is lying about something and her husband Pokkan (Sreejith) seems by turn guilt ridden and vengeful.

Haridas and Sarayu discuss the initial investigation including that the post-mortem was rewritten and a crucial report went “missing”. Things keep getting murkier.

Pokkan and Cheeru seem shady, but it looks like someone was keen to get Pokkan out of the way and make sure Manikyam didn’t go to the village to watch the drama with everyone else. The powerful landlord, Ahmed Haji (Mammootty in the second of his three roles in the film) is an obvious suspect but no one seems to think the police will actually go there.

Soon there is a manhunt as the police follow their chubby, happy Labrador around the village. I did like that there was a small scene dedicated to the merits of various dog breeds as tracking animals, with the Telugu trained Labrador the clear winner. Maybe I’d believe that if it was tracking a biscuit…

Ahmed Haji’s flunkey Velayuthan (Vijayan V Nair) tries to escape the village, but insists he didn’t kill her. He says Pokkan killed his wife in a jealous rage on finding her with an ex-lover, and he helped cover up the murder by making it look like a suicide. Cheeru accuses Velayuthan of abducting Manikyam and eventually leaving her hanging for Pokkan to find on his way home. And then Superintendent Manalathu (Sasi Kalinga) coaches Velayuthan on who the third man is, naming Muthuvan Ahmed. There are conflicting stories everywhere, although Ahmed Haji seems to be a constant. So many people silently conspired to ruin poor Manikyam.

Haridas reveals he is an illegitimate son of Ahmed Haji. He only knew him as a name revealed on his 18th birthday. But he won’t back down from investigating just because of that connection. It’s interesting that despite Haji being such a feared figure, no one spotted the spitting image likeness of his bastard son. Or did they know, and say nothing? Haridas keeps digging, meeting people who had been living in the area when Manikyam died, including Keshavan the barber (now played by Srinivasan).

Haridas is researching for his own curiosity, not because he is passionate about justice for Manikyam. He wants to be the one who knows it all, and to put his own obsession to rest. No one seems overly outraged at Manikyam’s fate or disturbed by Cheeru’s fall from grace. I liked his account of the night his mum told him about his biological father, but loving your mum is not proof of moral compass ownership. Haridas is not so very different to his father – he is sleeping with a married woman and lying to his wife. He just does it in a more socially accepted way. I didn’t like Haridas as a character but Mammootty gives him such intelligence and a keen understanding of human nature that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Cheeru is devoted to her son Pokkan, but there is always something a bit evasive about her expression. It wasn’t a surprise to know that Ahmed Haji had demanded her for himself, but their story was not quite what I expected. She is excited and frightened by Ahmed Haji and their mutual attraction, and she has insane chemistry with Mammootty. Cheeru’s transition into prostitution is depicted as a matter of circumstances and lack of options rather than a huge moral failing. Shweta Menon is brilliant and makes the shifts in Cheeru’s emotional pitch and strength seamlessly.

I appreciated that the extended flashbacks gave Mythili an opportunity to do more than play dead. She created a vivid character and I could see why Manikyam’s death was still haunting the village in so many ways. It was all the more tragic seeing the happy new bride and realising what was happening around her. But I am not sure all the flashbacks to the actual rape were needed – it would have been as powerful and less voyeuristic to move on or show other angles of the story, or give more insight into how other characters reacted to the brutal event. I didn’t need to keep seeing it, and Mythili’s portrayal of her fear and pain was disturbingly realistic.

Gowri Munjal is effective and understated in her scenes, although Mammootty dominates the dialogue and focus. In fact in some scenes I was wondering if she was there, out of view, or he was happily declaiming alone. They have the chemistry of friends with benefits, not a raging passionate affair, and I liked her pragmatism about his lying ways. Sarayu’s marriage has drifted away and her partner lives overseas. Haridas doesn’t seem too fussed when her husband Goutham calls out of the blue, instead encouraging her to go hear what he has to say.

It’s almost pointless to say this, as it is the norm for Malayalam cinema, but Paleri Manikyam is visually lovely. I had to rewind a couple of times because I was too distracted to read the subtitles properly. Manoj Pillai has the camera duck and weave through the crowds of onlookers, letting the viewer spy on the goings on. At other times the visuals jump around from frame to frame, perhaps a representation of Haridas’ inner state. There are some lovely setups too including two boats passing each other, one with Manikyam as a corpse and the other with her as a bride just 11 days earlier. Ahmed Haji puts down a bottle only to have Cheeru fill that space in the shot; Cheeru as a refreshment to be consumed when he desired it.

There is a huge ensemble of actors playing varous people around the locale.  Writer-Director Ranjith adapted his screenplay from a novel which was in turn based on an actual event. He was so keen to find people who looked and sounded authentic, he ran training camps and chose three relatively unknown actors from the area. He also cast a heap (that’s a technical measurement) of established theatre actors. The standard is uniformly high. Sreejith is wonderfully expressive as the slightly slow and bewildered Pokkan, especially when he returns home a sad and broken man. I wondered what became of him. Musthafa is quietly fiery and a bit sarcastic as young Keshava, the barber who though Communism would overcome caste. The actor who played Manikyam’s brother was also excellent, his grief and anger palpable. The only unnecessary role was actually Mammootty’s third, that of his half-brother Ahmed Khalid. He could have been played by another actor without diminishing the story or Mammootty’s fine accomplishment.

The ending is downbeat and ominous, although many loose ends are tied up. See this for the intriguing structure and slow revealing plot given great voice by the talented cast. You’ll need some tolerance for the violence and the bleak view of a woman’s worth in those days (and ask yourself how much things have changed). 4 ½ stars!

Big B

In term of its story development, production and editing Big B seems more like a Hollywood film than a typical Southern Indian action film, so I wasn’t really too surprised to learn later that it was based on a US film called Four Brothers. However there is plenty of local flavour and like all Malayalam films I’ve seen the cinematography is first class with great scenic shots, despite the film being primarily an action thriller. I haven’t seen the American film but after watching Big B I really can’t imagine anyone else but Mammootty in the lead role. Although the other characters are almost all well cast and give good performances, it’s Mammootty who makes an impact as the rather dour and resolute Big B of the title, and it’s his film the whole way through.

The film opens with the murder of Mary John Kurisingal (Nafisa Ali), more commonly known as Mary Teacher, or just Teacher. She’s well known in Kochi for her social work which mainly involves looking after orphans, and over the years has adopted 4 of them.  The opening scenes of Mary as she goes about her daily life helping the poor are very powerful and director Amal Neered succeeds in painting a detailed picture of a compassionate woman in just a few moments. And despite her lack of physical presence, Mary appears throughout the film in lots of small gestures and in body language as her adopted children mourn her loss when they notice the empty place at the table or are reminded of her as they move through her house.

We are introduced to the four brothers through the eyes of SI George (Vijayaraghavan) as he explains to ACP Balaji (Pasupathy) who’s who in the funeral procession and it’s an efficient way of letting us know a little about the characters.  While second eldest brother Eddy (Manoj K. Jayan) has been living in the area with his wife and daughters, working in a tourist restaurant and generally helping his mother, the youngest brother, Bijo (Sumit Naval), is a student in Coimbatore and Murugan (Bala) is a stunt director in the film industry. However the eldest brother Bilal (Mammootty) was banished by Mary Teacher after he killed a man in a street brawl and his entrance into the film is dramatic as befits a character with such a dark past. Bilal’s feet appear first as he gets out of his car into the rain-drenched streets and slowly walks across to join the funeral cortege. It is very OTT but effectively establishes Bilal as a force to be reckoned with.

After the funeral the brothers get together to try to discover exactly who killed Mary Teacher and why. They have no faith in the police investigation believing that corruption in the force and general apathy will lead to a cover-up. There are various other subplots including a couple of romances, but the focus of the film is firmly on the search for Mary’s killers. When Bilal left Kochi he had quite a reputation and he certainly hasn’t mellowed in the intervening years.

Bilal is the driving force behind the investigation and seems to use his search as a way to atone for his previous crime which forced Mary to close her door to him. While Bilal gives Mammootty the opportunity to be menacing, cold and vicious there is a more compassionate side to his character and there are glimpses of this in the way he deals with his brothers. The relationships between the four forms the secondary focus of the film and their differences in background, religion and opinion all disappear when they have a common enemy. Their camaraderie is well depicted and although I’m not very familiar with the actors here, they do all appear to be well suited to their roles.

Manoj K. Jayan is excellent as Eddy and gets it right as the hard-working family man who is more concerned with protecting his wife and children than cornering his mother’s killers. This reluctance to get involved in the investigation ends up making the others suspicious and the scene where the three brothers interrogate Eddy is very well scripted and filmed. I love the way Eddy is framed in the shot here, with a background showing family pictures and his brothers glaring down at him. The cinematography is excellent and the script is fast paced and seems well suited to the action although sometimes the subtitles do seem strange – perhaps this refers to measured speech??!

Not everything works though. The romance between playboy Murugan and Rimy (Mamta Mohandas) is generally well depicted and Murugan’s affection does seem to solidify into something more permanent, but there is a rather oddly placed song featuring the two frolicking around on a beach. It seems as if the director felt a ‘romantic’ song was needed to tick all the boxes for an Indian film, so in it went without any real thought as to how well it fitted with the story – which in my opinion is not at all. However it’s a good song that just needed to be in a different film. I do like Rimy’s character though, as she knows exactly what she wants and goes out to get it. Innocent appears in a brief role as Rimy’s father providing some comedy relief which isn’t particularly funny, but isn’t too annoying or intrusive either.

There is also an item song at the villain’s rather swish lair, which again seems to be rather oddly pictured with lots of tourists roped in to dance around and provide a party atmosphere. Again it doesn’t really work for me as it doesn’t quite give the debauched tone that I think it was trying to convey (and it’s also a remix of a Shakira hit).

The other disappointment is the villain of the story. Tony (Sherveer Vahil) is a horribly hairy man with a disconcerting habit of rolling his tongue which does make him sound appropriately villainous. But he’s too much of a caricature with his depraved and immoral parties, drug taking and enjoyment in beating up his minions as a bizarre form of training. He seems too unbalanced and quite frankly too psychotic to be able to lead a gang competently, let alone organise the killing of Mary Teacher. His co-conspirators are better and are more menacing and believable as bad guys, with the much appreciated added benefit of not removing their shirts unnecessarily. I warn you – Tony has no such scruples.

Big B is a relatively violent film but it’s all integral to the plot and the fight scenes are excellently choreographed by Anal Arasu. The casual brutality that Bilal displays is as much a part of his character as his ability to reason through the connections to find his mother’s killer. Bilal’s links to the various figures in the underworld and his fearsome reputation are also essential elements to determining exactly who was involved in the murder. But each of the brothers has their part to play in the investigation and the final showdown has a good mixture of suspense and action.  The background music by Gopi Sundar seems to fit the film better than the songs by Alphons Joseph although the ‘Yo Big B’ theme music and the beautiful Vida Parayukayano are excellent. The clip below does feature Bilal’s attack on a street thug so skip from 2 min 45 to 3 min 15 if you don’t like violence but the song is lovely and beautifully sung by Shreya Ghosal.

Apart from horribly hairy Tony the support cast are all good and overall it’s a slick and well-made film that looks fantastic. Amal Neered started in the industry as a cinematographer and early in his career worked with Ram Gopal Varma which seems to have been an influence on his directing style. He makes very good use of cinematographer Sameer Thahir’s camera work and as ever Kerala looks amazing – even in the rain.  I’m a Mammootty fan and have enjoyed all of his films I’ve seen so far, but I love him in this film as he gets everything right – he’s cold and ruthless when he needs to be but there is still plenty of emotion raging away underneath. Big B is well worth a watch for his performance and for a film that is a little bit different in its approach. 4 stars

Temple says:

I’m not sure what Heather means by saying this film is more Hollywood in style. To me it bears many  hallmarks of South Indian cinema – beautiful visuals, a sense of place/locality (in Kochi), a story heavily centred on the male star, flashy editing and sound effects, an emphasis on family loyalty, songs whether the film needs them or not,  a flexible attitude to the law, and a long lead up to a crunching finale.

It all sounds good on paper. But despite Mammootty delivering a compelling performance, there just isn’t enough to keep my interest throughout. I kept picturing the production team watching the rushes, congratulating themselves on bagging a brilliant actor and then one day asking each other that awkward question ‘Did YOU remember to write the rest of the story?’. The opening is brilliant and builds up the suspense and sense of loss very economically. But then the film wallows in repetitive scenes of the brothers’ unhappy reunion, and it starts to feel laboured. There isn’t enough conflict, character or relationship development to consistently keep my interest over the first hour. It’s all quite predictable, and while the actors are competent, I never cared much for the characters apart from Mary and Bilal. It is too easy to work out whodunit and who is marked for death so there is little suspense. Once things do ramp up in the quest for revenge, the story becomes more engaging but then goes off the rails again. As Heather said, Tony is a caricature. The opportunity for a real menace was lost so Bilal is the only convincingly scary bad guy in the final confrontation.

The songs were badly placed and poorly picturised, serving only to pad out the running time. The background score is probably OK if you like florid strings and angelic choirs but I found it intrusive and it detracted from the acting. Visually, there are far too many instances of the freeze frame, fast edits, quirky camera angles and accompanying sound effects when they aren’t really warranted. I felt that they were trying to inject some excitement into the draggy scenes by using effects. But what they needed was a bit more work on the story and structure.

See it for the excellent characterisation by Mammootty and the beautifully filmed scenery and interiors. 3 stars.