Malaikottai Vaaliban: A Spiritual Journey, The Story of Karna Or Mohanlal’s Biopic?

Each new viewing of the auteur’s tragic new epic leads to fresh interpretations. Here are three that are fun to wrestle with
Malaikottai Vaaliban: A Spiritual Journey, The Story of Karna Or Mohanlal’s Biopic?

Malaikottai Vaaliban may well be Lijo Jose Pellissery’s most frustrating film. If one thought the reactions to its theatrical release were extreme and polarising, wait until you watch the film for a second or perhaps, a third time. You may go to sleep thoroughly indifferent to Valiban, only to wake up the next morning with it having suddenly transformed into an absolute favourite, thanks in part to dream logic. It’s at least his fourth consecutive film (after Jallikattu, Churuli and Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam) to lead the viewer to multiple readings and the feeling that everyone watched a different film, but with Malaikottai Vaaliban, there wasn’t the usual openness with which one would enter an LJP™ film. Call it the overarching wattage of Mohanlal’s superstardom or the confusing signalling that gave the audience a very different idea of its content, but at the very least, history will remember the film’s fate as one that was as tragic as that of its protagonist. But is it even fair to call Malaikottai Vaaliban a tragedy?  

How else would you describe the story of an all-powerful warrior who ends up losing everything, even when he remains undefeated in battle? To understand this, one must analyse Vaaliban’s structure through the four battles he needs to fight. His is a team of three that travel from place to place in search of worthy opponents and the giant reward they are bound to win once Vaaliban (Mohanlal) defeats them. The film itself is divided into chapters, each representing a place and the corresponding battle Vaaliban must fight. It’s also a film that starts somewhere in between along Vaaliban’s journey: he has been in many clashes before the film begins and there could be many battles to follow at the point at which the film ends. This not only gives the film a timeless quality but also gives us the illusion that his battles have been going on for centuries (the film even starts with two donkeys walking in circles around a rotary mill).

A Spiritual Journey

But within the film’s timeframe, you will notice how each victory leads to even bigger opponents, along the lines of a video game, with each easy opponent making way for tougher “bosses”. Yet what makes Malaikottai Vaaliban somewhat of a spiritual experience is how each fight leads to more complex battles that are more internal in nature. It feels essential for the film to be structured in such a manner because the titular Vaaliban is extremely powerful. The words of his half-brother Chinnapayyan (Manoj Moses) describe him as possessing the strength to take down one hundred elephants and naturally, the world of Vaaliban isn’t big enough to accommodate two people of his brutal physical might. This is evident in the way the first battle has been choreographed. Vaaliban not only takes on a much larger opponent but he has to also do this in an enemy territory, where public support is working against him. Despite being inebriated and half asleep, we witness how someone of mere physical strength alone is no match for Vaaliban and he deflates a man twice his size with the casual ease of picking a flower.

If the first battle was one about brawn, those that follow have more to do with the brain and the heart. This is after he finds a worthy opponent in the form of the wily Chamanthakan (Danish Sait), a character that even hisses like a snake. Chamanthakan is the one that’s lining up battles against Vaaliban and from then on, these aren’t physical battles alone. His second is against a mother-son duo (the Mangadu Mallan) known for their double-crossing ways, but over here, you find Vaaliban becoming softer than he was. You see Vaaliban’s growing attachment to a disabled fighter, someone he comes to consider his guru. In a shot that reminds one of Mohanlal’s great scenes from Vanaprastham, you see his face framed through the arches of his new Guru’s feet. In the battle that follows, he isn’t merely fighting for money or fame alone. There is an element of revenge, or the “duty”, of a student who has to settle scores for his guru.

This attachment only quadruples as he moves on to this next battle when he must return to Ambathoor Malaikottai, the place he comes from. Along this journey, his home team of three finds a new member when the beautiful Jamanthi (Katha Nandi) hops on. She soon becomes a sister to Vaaliban and the lady’s addition creates the equation of a family being formed again. The third battle, which takes place right after this, is one that includes an even bigger price for Vaaliban. Until then the side you’ve seen is that of a warrior that has no real home. In the story narrated earlier by one of Vaaliban’s many romantic pursuits, we get a glimpse of a man who is distant by design. Despite the love she pours onto Vaaliban, you see a man who has no option but to move on and away. He appears committed to his travels, choosing to abandon this love story without regrets. 

But when he returns to Malaikottai, the place has become unrecognisable. From a travelling warrior to a dutiful student, this is where Vaaliban must rise to become a saviour. He finds that his hometown has turned into a giant prison and his people, locked up slaves. Chamanthakan is back again and his attack on Vaaliban is identical to that of a snake bite. It is when Vaaliban is among his people that he gets poisoned, one of the two shots where he is seen as a part of a large crowd. In the following scene, we see that Vaaliban is literally tied in chains. There are two pillars on either side and he must fight those shackles to be freed again. This too appears symbolic of a man trying to overcome any sort of bondage to the idea of a home, family or a people. So when Vaaliban defeats the full might of the Spanish Prince, Princess and their army, he is no longer a wandering warrior—he becomes something of a God for freeing his people from slavery. 

This is when the enemies around him multiply with jealousy coming into play. It becomes their duty to bring this God back down to earth and turn him into the mere mortal he was. He is hardly a free spirit and despite getting on with his travels, his chariot has grown into a home on wheels. When the news of his Chinnappayan becoming a father is broken to him, it becomes a point of no return for Vaaliban too, doubling up as the patriarch. In a sequence that plays on the Othello Syndrome, we find Chinnapayyan doubting his one true love and his only brother, seconds after he is manipulated. He is drunk, doubtful and enraged when he attacks Vaaliban and the sequence is framed in a way that you see the Gods themselves laughing at Vaaliban for the way he gets deceived into killing his own blood. 

Eventually, it is the strength of a hundred elephants that becomes Vaaliban’s undoing. As he grows attached to the idea of love and family, you see him lose everything. This love becomes his Achilles’ Heel, his biggest vice. A man so tough on the outside eventually becomes too soft to possess this superpower and finally, when Ashaan (Hareesh Peradi) his mentor turns against him, the punishment is complete for his detour away from detachment. From fighting for money and fame, he begins to fight for love, respect and his people. And what began as a challenge to his body, turns into battles that challenge his intellect, his heart and finally, his soul. What is the point of it all if you win every battle, only to realise you have lost everything in the process?    

The Angst Of Karna

A second reading of Malaikottai Vaaliban might lead one to think how the character of Vaaliban remains a successor to the mighty warrior Karnan. Mohanlal himself has played Karnan in Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s Karnabhaaram and we see his character battling inner demons when he realises that he has fought against his half-brother. Even in the opening shot, when we first see Vaaliban, Madhu Neelakandan’s camera doesn’t fail to show us a close-up of Vaaliban’s earrings or his kundalam. The film’s dialogues and songs bring up these earrings and his birth too gets revealed to be outside of wedlock, almost exactly like that of Karnan. Yet the point that makes him most similar to Karnan is when the character played by Manikandan Achari prays for a saviour to free him. In his words, he hopes for someone with the strength of the Sun to rise from the depths of the earth to vanquish all evil. Towards the end, we also see multiple frames of Vaaliban with the Sun right behind him, even as we wait for his battle against his father. How poetic it would be to connect Mahabharatha’s great tragic hero to that of a skilled, undefeated, demi-God such as Vaaliban? 

A still from Malaikottai Vaaliban
A still from Malaikottai Vaaliban

The Mohanlal Biopic

Yet the most outlandish of theories regarding  Malaikottai Vaaliban is one that applies a meta-reading of the film, almost like how it is Mohanlal’s biography. If you squint, it’s not too hard to be able to see bits of Mohanlal, the giant Superstar, in Vaaliban. In terms of his role as an actor, he remains undefeated, just like how Vaaliban remains the undisputed fighter. The movie adds characteristics to Vaaliban we too have come to associate with the Myth of Mohanlal, including his love for a drink or two or his philosophy that upholds a level of detachment in all relationships. In Chinnapayyan, we see a bit of ourselves, the loyal fanboy and younger brother, who have looked up to Lalettan as someone who is more than just any other superstar. Like Chinnapayyan, we too announce his might and prowess, even before the films get to do it. We sing paeans about his previous battles and his records that remain enviable for anyone. 

And in Aashaan (Hareesh Peradi), Vaaliban’s guide and charioteer, we see Mohanlal’s entourage and business partners, who seem to be in some sort of a disconnect with his fans. There is much that is lost in translation and as fans, we no longer understand the gap between the Mohanlal that was and the Mohanlal that is. When rival fans get to see their superstar reinvent every two months or so, we feel stuck somewhere in the middle, between the past and the present. 


Which is how I’d like to read the final battle in  Malaikottai Vaaliban. As fans, we too are complicit in the battle Mohanlal must keep fighting, each and every single time he comes up with a new movie. This battle for Vaaliban is one he must fight against his own father, one that’s fought from within. As for Mohanlal, his battles today are with a titan that is of equal might— the Mohanlal of the 80’s and 90’s, or the “pazhaya lalettan”. The weight of expectations we put on his films are like the shackles we see in Vaaliban, time and again. So when we pit present-day Mohanlal against the might of classic Mohanlal, we’re forcing him into a battle he is bound to lose and one that does as much harm to us as fans. In our desperation to assign God status to him, we forget how our love for him began because he was once allowed to be even more human than any one of us.

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