Director: Geetu Mohandas

Cast: Nivin Pauly, Sobhita Dhulipala, Shashank Arora, Roshan Matthew

With her second feature Moothon, Geetu Mohandas has moved from the bone-dry minimalism of Liar’s Dice to some sort of art-house maximalism. Everything is doubled. Two timelines. Two settings. Two siblings. And most importantly, two tones. Let’s just say Nivin Pauly‘s introduction scene has him doing what big-name stars in big-ticket films typically do: he walks up in slow motion. (It’s the kind of thing that gets even a film-festival audience hooting and cheering.) In other words, this is a movie with a “hero entry shot”. This is also a movie with a mermaid.

The music by Sagar Desai illustrates a bit of this dichotomy. The more violent storyline — set in the present, in the seedier streets of Mumbai — is filled with unease, a sense that’s amplified by the deep thrum of a cello. The other, happier storyline — in the past, and in an idyllic coastal village of Lakshadweep — is buoyed by the gentle dribble of an acoustic guitar. One part of me wished Geetu had stuck to one story in one timeline, but in a strange way, this in-between mood is what makes Moothon — written by the director (the Hindi dialogues are by Anurag Kashyap) — stand out.

The story is about Mulla (Sanjana Dipu), a young boy who comes to Mumbai in search of his moothon, elder brother, and ends up in the sex workers’ colony of Kamathipura. Liar’s Dice, too, was about the search for a missing relative — but this section of Moothon feels more like a mix of the Ram Gopal Varma gangster melodramas and the Dickensian sprawl of Salaam Bombay! (Like the protagonist of the latter film, our boy, too, gets a job delivering tea!) Rajeev Ravi’s fly-on-the-wall camerawork scrupulously records these events with an unfussy, day-in-the-life feel — but the general air of these portions is that we’ve been there, seen that.

We spend a lot of time learning very little that’s new, and I got the feeling that a longer, denser, more involving story about this place and its people had been edited down to the extent that only the sketchiest details remain: the lurid colours, the sex worker (Sobhita Dhulipala) with an arsenal of cusswords, the warden (Vipin Sharma) a little too fond of little boys, the unfriendly neighbourhood child trafficker and dope pusher (a wonderfully twitchy Shashank Arora). None of these characters feels lived-in. They come off like outlines in a first draft. But Mulla keeps us invested. I kept thinking of his face (Sanjana Dipu registers fear and confusion beautifully) as he set off for Mumbai on a boat — he looks back at the familiar land and familiar faces he is leaving behind, and also looks ahead at the boundless sea, at an unknown future.

The other interesting character — though again, we feel we want more of him — is Bhai. Part of the attraction, of course, is the actor who plays him. Nivin Pauly isn’t the first name that springs to mind when we think “vicious, drugged-out child trafficker and Kamathipura kingpin” — but he’s a knockout. He carries around a huge amount of extra kilos (his wobbly mid-section is sure to sweep the Best Supporting Belly awards next year), and the appearance does a lot to compensate for the lack of bulk in the character, at least initially. He’s built up like a myth. But he’s a mere man. He speaks of someone who came to Mumbai a long time ago, who survived by doing odd jobs and kept getting caught by the cops, until he killed him. He could be talking about himself. Maybe Bhai is dead in a sense, a mere outer shell that he keeps alive through the syringes he keeps emptying into his veins.

It’s when we land in Lakshadweep, amidst a fishing community, that the pieces slowly begin to fit. There’s Mulla’s uncle, Moosa (Dileesh Pothan). There’s the mute Ameer (Roshan Mathew), who communicates in sign language. There’s Ameena (Melissa Raju Thomas). There’s a semblance of a love triangle, the kind where a man loves someone but is forced to marry someone else. Throughout Moothon, Geetu stages many exquisite moments, and the most exquisite of them all may be the way she puts her stamp on one of the oldest of romantic clichés: the close-up meeting of the eyes.

All this drama plays against the backdrop of the ritual of Kuthu Ratheeb, where young Muslim men slash at their bodies with knives, to the accompaniment of hymns. It’s an act of devotion. But here, it’s also an act of self-flagellation, for wanting things that go against one’s belief systems. Ameer’s muteness could be a metaphor for the silencing of identity and individuality in a conservative, patriarchal community. Roshan Mathew is beautifully cast, not just because he is himself a beautiful man, but because Geetu uses his “beauty” in very unexpected ways.

We finally get the backstory of Bhai, who used to be slimmer, softer. Nivin Pauly becomes the Nivin Pauly we know: the impish charmer. But even within this zone, he charts out brand-new emotional terrain — his face often lights up with a multitude of complex feelings, expressing things we usually see women express on screen. Have you seen a man experience what it’s like to be really (physically) touched for the first time? Have you seen a man smile shyly into a mirror, reliving this touch? Have you seen a man in the first flush of love, utterly at peace at having found something he probably didn’t even know he wanted? Nivin gives us all these men, and then some.

And you see why Geetu wanted Nivin. It’s not (just) the star power. I cannot think of many other actors who can convey this kind of vulnerability (through his face) and menace (through his beefed-up body). A more conventional film would have made Bhai the protagonist. In a way, he still is. But in choosing to come at him through Mulla, we don’t get as much of a hold on him as we want. How did the man from the past become this monster in the present? The physical changes are apparent, but the psychological transitions are left to us to fill out.

Geetu Mohandas likes to leave things ambiguous. But these ambiguities felt organic in Liar’s Dice, which was a spare narrative. The more ambitious Moothon is overstuffed with drama, with twists and meetings and happy coincidences right out of the Manmohan Desai universe. Plus, car and foot chases and the “one last shot at redemption” trope from crime and noir cinema. Plus, a host of characters that appears and disappears. A trans character (Sujith Shankar) is brought in literally out of nowhere to take care of Mulla. I thought this development was connected to events from the past (and to someone we met earlier), but apparently not. Is it a “touch”? Or is it just writing of convenience?

The narrative wants to be Mulla’s journey. It also becomes Bhai’s journey. It’s also about identities — the ones we want to shed, the ones we are forced to assume. Moothon has enough going on to justify a good half-hour more. But bumps and all, the journey is rewarding because there’s always a deeply felt event around the corner — like the bit involving some lipstick that Mulla has to deal with early on, a detail that comes full circle in the final frame and left me with a lump in the throat. It’s, in a way, a happy ending. But the circumstances are terribly sad. (You could say this stretch warrants the cello and the violin.) And in a fantastic scene, a boat is magically filled with fish — it’s what happens when fate decides to smile on you, giving you everything you wanted but didn’t even know how to ask for. Moments like these are like the sandalwood/turmeric paste Bhai applies on his scarred self. The scent lingers.

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