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!