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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Thirakkatha

 

Ranjith’s Thirakkatha is supposedly inspired by the relationship between Srividya and Kamal Haasan. I have zero interest in the love lives of celebrities but this is also a thoughtful look at the film industry, it’s a reasonably sane romantic drama except when it isn’t, and Priyamani steals the show.

Warning, spoilers ahead! There are some things that struck me so hard I don’t want to omit them.

Young gun director Akbar Ahmed (Prithviraj) is awarded for his first film hitting 100 days. He is given a trophy by industry legend Ajayachandran (Anoop Menon). Ajay’s internal monologue is all about himself and how he fought the odds to become a star. Certainly judging by some of the chatter amongst other guests, he is not universally loved. Akki is inspired to make his next film on the story of Ajay and his ex-wife, the star actress Malavika (Priyamani). She hasn’t been seen in years and nobody really knows much about her, despite all the gossip. Akki obtains diaries and letters written by director Aby Kurivilla (Ranjith himself) from his son Appu (Vineeth Kumar), and starts to piece their story together from both the private and public sources. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with Akki telling the story as he knows it to his crew. When it seems that a story is all they have, they locate Malavika. Now terminally ill and alone, her life is a far cry from Ajay’s success and acclaim. What happened, and why?

Anoop Menon had to battle with some unflattering wigs and 80s attire that did an excellent job of obscuring his alleged charms, but Ajay’s determination is loud and clear. His break came playing a villain opposite Malavika and some producer’s nondescript son. He fell for Malavika at first sight, his heightened emotions helping him deliver a convincing performance. Whether shyly flirting with Malavika or pushing his career agenda, he didn’t back down when reminded of what people saw as his place. Ajay is obsessed with success and Malu was a lucky charm for his films. After a secret registry office wedding, Malu fell pregnant and planned to stop acting and be a mum. Ajay had been in a string of flops and was relying on Malu’s box office pull for their next movie to rescue his career. He told her she was ruining his life in favour of an unborn child and persuaded her to have an abortion, triggering events that ended their marriage. When Ajayachandran finds out about the movie, he tries to divert Akki to making a film with him rather than about him. Even Ajay’s wife thinks he’s a selfish bastard. Ajayachandran’s father was a makeup artist and people are snide about his lowly beginnings even now he is a legend. He became a big hero, but sometimes petty villain seems more his calling. Anoop Menon is most convincing as the selfish Ajay with his ambition and inferiority complex driving him. He benefits from a kind of halo effect in scenes with Priyamani, but seems lacking in the emotionally complex moments.

Malavika is a reluctant star, with a pushy ex-star stage mum (Mallika Sukumaran) and a loyal, almost silent assistant, Valarmathi (Surabhi). She’d rather get a job after graduating, but her mum hit Malu with a guilt trip of how she had to dance on film to raise her family and now the alcoholic dad is gone there is no money. Malavika is an assertive girl with everyone but her mother. I like the way she firmly shooed Ajayachandran away when she needed a moment between scenes. The flashbacks show all the drama behind the scenes as well as the vintage acting and dance styles of the early 80s.

Priyamani is just gorgeous, deftly showing Malavika’s star quality (the camera loves her), and her more pragmatic everyday personality. She berated Ajay for learning to kiss from watching local films, cheerfully telling him classic French films were the best reference. I loved Malu’s confidence in herself and her growing understanding of her power in the film industry. She has a drink with a producer but when he makes a pass she is comfortable and articulate turning him down. She doesn’t want to change who she is and she won’t be pressured or made to feel ashamed. Priyamani’s performance kept me invested in the story through even the most melodramatic plot contortions.

Major spoiler(s) – highlight to read:

Malu is told that during the abortion they found a growth that had to be removed. Later on her doctor friend Vasanthi tells her that Ajay lied – He requested that her tubes be tied so she won’t fall pregnant. It turns out this is not exactly true but that did nothing to quell my outrage. Firstly, bullying her into an abortion when she clearly wanted the child – BAD. Not telling Malu about the medical situation and not getting her consent or allowing her to have any part of the decision – BAD. Persuading the doctor to keep a cancer diagnosis from Malu so she would make another film instead of perhaps getting treatment that may have saved her life – BAD. Ajay believing that he was right because he wanted her to be happy and she would be happy when he was happy and he would be happy when he was a big star – BAD. Akki bringing Malavika to his place to recuperate although she didn’t know him at all, which is a nice gesture but once again there was no consultation with the actual patient, so therefore – BAD. The doctor who let Akki take a terminally ill stranger away just because – BAD. Everyone including Malavika apparently forgiving Ajay because he felt so sorry (for himself) – WTAF?!?

/rant

Ranjith is disparaging of some practices in his industry, calling out examples and mocking the results. Akki is very much the guy who got there because of his passion for film making. He’ll sign with a producer but he won’t let them dictate what he does. The line between life and story fodder is also explored through Akki as he grows closer to Malavika and has to decide how and if he will use her story for his career.

Prithviraj is low key and generally likeable as Akki. He is hampered a bit by the narrative structure that uses his character as an agent of voiceover, and from being in the modern day part of the story which is for me the least interesting. He works with a small group of trusted friends, running a restaurant with them in between films. Akki is prone to the unilateral decision, and most of his friends are followers. I was sometimes annoyed despite his good intentions just because he was so self-righteous. Akki and his capable girlfriend Devayani (Samvrutha Sunil) have a no fuss relationship and make a nice couple. As Malu and Ajay’s romance is explored, they realise maybe they need to think about theirs.

The songs (by Sharreth) fit better in the flashback. Onnodu is a random and quite uncoordinated song between prologue and titles, perhaps just there for the Prithviraj fans.

There is so much that I liked, but the flaws are equally striking. Some of the discussions about film making felt out of synch, but I liked the extra layer about interpretation and storytelling. Ranjith handled the multiple timeline structure more deftly in Paleri Manikyam, but the 80s flashback section is a highlight. 3 ½ stars! (BIG deduction for the medical ethics)

Paleri Manikyam

paleri_manikyam_poster

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!