Apart from discovering the works of lesser-known filmmakers, I’ve been trying to use this time to also watch lesser-known films of some of our most celebrated directors. In Hindi, I finally got around to watching Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly and re-watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi. In my search to watch Balu Mahendra’s first Malayalam film Olangal (the one with the great Ilaiyaraaja song ‘Thumbi Vaa’), I stumbled upon Unaru, starring Mohanlal, directed by this reasonably famous Indian filmmaker.
In the Malayalam text, his name is just credited as a single word ‘Maniratnam’, without a space in between. Written by T Damodaran and shot by Ramachandra Babu (who also shot Ratnam’s Pagal Nilavu) Unaru is easily the least Mani Ratnamesque Mani Ratnam film. Without context, it would be easy for anyone to mistake Unaru for being a film directed by either IV Sasi or Joshiy. It might not have the craft one would expect from one of his films, but that fiery drama you’d expect in one of Damodaran mash’s scripts (including a speech about the real Communists of the State) is certainly there.
Set in Cochin Port, the film begins when Ramu (Mohanlal) finds it hard to get work without joining one of the unions. Along with unemployed fisherman Peter (Ratheesh), he seeks the help of a lawyer Janardhanan (Sukumaran) to start their union. “There are no more trade unions here. Just the union trade,” says a character played by the 80s’ Malayalam film mascot Prathap Chandran. That, in a sense, is what the film is really about. How the unions start with good intentions, but turn into monsters protecting the interests of a few at the top, ignoring the people at the bottom.
As matters progress, what keeps the film together are the character arcs of Ramu and Janaradhanan, who turn into the same people they fought against in the beginning. It’s a film you can watch for Sukumaran’s character alone. If one can look past the heightened melodrama in certain scenes and Ilaiyaraaja’s ear-piercing shehnai to accompany it, Unaru is a film with a lot to offer.