Director: Arun Gopy
Cast: Dileep, Kalabhavan Shajon, Radikaa Sarathkumar, Siddique
Arun Gopy's Ramaleela (Rama's Play) was conceived and completed before its leading man, Dileep, was arrested for plotting the kidnap and assault of an actress — so what we see on screen is not intentionally meta. But meta it certainly is. How can you not think about real life when the first sighting of Ramanunni (Dileep) occurs as he is escorted by cops? And who's waiting at the other end? The media, breathless for sound bites. Even the lines ("Are the allegations true?") flit easily between Ramanunni and Dileep. And consider the zoom-in to Ramanunni standing behind a window: slowly, the wall vanishes, the frame disappears, and we just see a face behind vertical bars. If a grisly, can't-look-away road accident were made into a movie, it'd resemble Ramaleela.
"So what?" some might ask. If we watch the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Salman Khan, why should we flinch from Ramaleela? True. But I was never able to watch it as just a movie because the reel/real echoes are so strong, especially in the latter portions. (Wait till you see the jaw-dropping twist!) There's a difference between "I did it, I'm sorry, let's please move on" and "I did it, he/she deserved it, and I manipulated evidence to appear innocent." Everything Ramanunni says, everything that's said to him ("What is in your heart should never appear on your face"), everything he does comes across as the action of a powerful, remorseless man, aided by the woman by his side. The film is practically a dare. No wonder it's a hit.
Now to the actual story. Ramanunni, an MLA, defects from the "red" party his father belonged to (later we see why, though the last scene is a hilariously dodgy defence of Communism). His former comrades are furious. Even his mother (Radikaa Sarathkumar, in an underdeveloped character) is furious. As is Udayabhanu (a wily Siddique), a senior member of the party Ramanunni has joined. Ramanunni's aide (Kalabhavan Shajon) remarks of Udayabhanu that the man who once fought with Ramanunni will now campaign for him. Dileep, sorry… Ramanunni says, "The people deserve that." Take this line in the reel-life context and it says we get the politicians we deserve. Take it in the real-life context and it says we get the movie stars we deserve.
The set-up is long, plodding – for a series of political games we've seen in a thousand films, there's no reason to dwell on them so. Plus, the writing (by Sachy) is so broad, it's hard to take anything or anyone seriously. Prayaga Martin plays Helena, a woman who advertises her "modernity" by being anti-marriage and downing vodka. (Thankfully, there's no romantic track.) A senior party worker casually confesses about a killing. Another party worker makes an "anonymous" call to the media with his mobile phone and gives himself away. But things begin to look up when a politician (Vijayaraghavan) is killed. Shakespeare would have called it murder most foul – it occurs during a football match. Mukesh steps in as a cop named Paulson, and the film steps into whodunit territory.
Paulson is convinced that Ramanunni is the perpetrator – though later, he backtracks, saying that if the police have made a mistake, there's no harm rectifying it. We've heard of messages from beyond the grave. This sounds – again, inadvertently – like a message from behind bars. This investigation alone would have been enough to keep us hooked about who really dunit, but the screenplay takes a super (though not exactly sensible, given how stupid the cops turn out) turn that has Dileep/Ramanunni making a case for his innocence in front of all of Kerala, through a reality show-like TV programme. No wonder the filmmaker Lal Jose said, in a Facebook post celebrating the film's box-office performance, that Dileep has won in the people's court.
As cinema, Ramaleela is mostly indefensible. The early scenes are filled with close-ups, reaction shots. And the latter stretches want us to believe that hidden cameras can record everything over an impossibly wide area, from the inside of a room in a seaside resort to the beach outside, all with perfect sound. The actual film may need this logic but the meta film doesn't. Dileep keeps a poker face, giving very little away ("What is in your heart should never appear on your face," remember?), and I came away fairly convinced I'd never see something like this again. Actors and filmmakers who've fallen from grace usually make movies to make us forget real life for a few hours. Ramaleela, in that regard, is unique. It keeps making us remember.
Watch the teaser of Ramaleela here: