In a recent interview, actor Jayasurya recalled a conversation with Mammootty after the latter watched his film Luka Chuppi. Mammotty went on to tell Jayasurya that he had liked the film even though it was received poorly and the reason the superstar cited for its failure was its "terrible" title. Malayalam cinema is infamous for using 'English' film names, but Hindi titles, that too one like Luka Chuppi, alienated the audience. However, given that Jayasurya has also acted in a film titled Pigman, Luka Chuppi seems a step up.
If there was ever a film hurt by terrible marketing and the title, it has to be Sundarakilladi. I still haven't met a single person who watched this film in a theatre in November 1998. It's also true that I haven't met many Malayalam film lovers who haven't watched this film when it started airing on TV. Dileep may not have been a big star then, but Shalini was one, post Aniyathipravu, and Sundarakilladi, written and produced by Fazil, should have certainly fared better.
I remember seeing the film's posters, wondering why all of them looked like they were from the film's songs. The title didn't help either. The "Khiladi" suffix was usually associated with Akshay Kumar's action films but this didn't look like an action movie at all. All one could make out was that it was going to be a love story. This is important because the film demands a certain mindset from viewers. It wasn't just another love story, it was also a fantasy. In a sense, one needed to go for this movie expecting an experience that was akin to reading an Amar Chitra Katha comic.
Sundarakilladi was set in its own anachronistic universe. Is it a period film? Both yes and no. The film is predominantly set in a fictional fantastical village, ironically named Swapnabhoomi. Dialogues in the film suggest how the building of a dam stopped the flow of a tributary towards this village, resulting in a drought. Electricity and roads haven't yet reached here, and apart from glimpses of a camera, there's no saying what decade the film is set in.
Considering the huge amount of rainfall Kerala receives every year, this bit of world building was necessary, because, at its core, it is a film about water scarcity and a village's desperation to build a well before it runs out of water. 'Killadi' in the film's imaginary world, is a term given to a family of gifted well diggers. Premachandra Sundarakilladi, the character played by Dileep, is the 'chosen one', the last remaining male member of this family. When a group of villagers from Swapnabhoomi approaches Premachandran to dig a well for them, he resists, but agrees when they agree to pay him 10 times more than the going rate.
Realistically speaking, his well-building abilities have never been put to test, but that isn't really an issue for the "chosen one" because this calling is backed by prophecies. The villagers believe that only a person from the Vedhapuram Killadi clan can end the drought. Premachandran's resistance is broken almost as soon as he reaches Swapnabhoomi. He begins to believe in his duty, finding signs around the village that tell him that he's there for a reason. He also starts studying the books given to him by his forefathers and uses them as his roadmap.
The reason why his mission to build this well becomes important to the viewer is because it's linked to a more primal cause. The only way Premachandran can be with the girl he falls in love with is if the strict rules of the village get relaxed. And, the only way that can happen is when the village gets its own source of water. Devayani's (Shalini) introduction happens almost 30 minutes into the film, and even this scene is used to establish the place's unique customs and rituals. A regular film would have pitted a rational hero against the old-fashioned ritual-obsessed village, but here, the hero too believes in his own set of rules and customs. Even when we, along with the hero, find their customs strange and unacceptable, we still 'believe' it in the scheme of things. It's a sign of a good fantasy when we are ready to play by the rules of its world, even when we don't understand or agree with it.
Despite their regressive practices, the villagers don't come across as evil. Tied to Premachandran and Devayani's fate, we too want the village to get water. Like the Devayani from Hindu mythology, the Devayani in the film too plays the daughter of a blessed healer, who possesses the Mrita Sanjivani Mantra, or the ability to bring a person back to life. It's again, interesting to see how this myth has been used in the film as a basis for their love story.
Watching the film again today, you realise why the film remains so clear in memory, after all these years. Of course, it has not aged too well, look-wise. Come to think of it now, the film's aesthetic seems to have been completely based on the 'Mannan Thelinje Ninnaal' song from Priyadarshan's Thenmavin Kombathu, another fantasy. The songs, though wonderfully composed by Ousepachan after Aniyathipravu, are more than generously borrowed. The film's opening credits song, for instance, sounds a lot like a premature version of the composer's own 'Azhake', which he went on to create for Lohithadas' Kasthuriman. 'Thappum Thatti', sung by the composer himself, sounds eerily similar to Vishal Bhardwaj's classic 'Chappa Chappa Charka Chale'. One can also easily find the entire melody of Titanic's OST in the film's hit song 'Madham Pularumbol'.
Even so, no one can deny the vision behind this film. The emotions hold up even today and there's a lot of relief in seeing drops of water trickle into through the ground in the film's climax. Had the film been marketed differently, it might have become a commercial success. But, if people are still talking and writing about a film after two decades, it's still a success, one way or the other, isn't it?