Malik, the third directorial from Mahesh Narayanan following the rescue drama Take Off and the screen-based thriller c u soon, harks back to those intricately plotted thrillers churned out by the likes of IV Sasi during the '80s which, while loaded with solid ensemble casts and heavy socio-political subtext, preferred a matter-of-fact storytelling approach over heightened theatrics. The film also happens to be the third collaboration between the director and Fahadh Faasil, with the latter getting to play a full-fledged leading role after having played a supportive bureaucrat and an audience-surrogate hacker in the previous ones. However, Malik is not an out-and-out Fahadh show either (that honour goes to Trance, Joji and, to an extent, Kumbalangi Nights), since each and every player in the ensemble turns out to be key, as the saga of how the petty smuggler Sulaiman Ali grows into the Messiah of Ramadappally unfurls over the course of nearly three hours.
Set in the fictional coastal regions Ramadappally and Edavathura in the state capital, Mahesh's updated take on Nayakan (itself inspired by The Godfather) begins with a middle-aged Sulaiman, a.k.a. Ali Ikka (Brother Ali), getting booked by the police under the TADA act, just as he's about to embark on the Hajj. Obviously, there are vested interests at play here, as the arrest is for a case that had already been expired and neither the cops nor the state intend to keep the old man alive for long, due to their having been at loggerheads with him for decades. Also thrown into this mix is Freddy, a juvenile delinquent who also happens to be Ali's spiteful nephew. Over the fourteen days of his judicial remand, three key figures in Ali's life recount their decades-long life experiences to Freddy: Ali's mother, Freddy's dad David and, finally, Ali himself. Told in a non-linear narrative fractured over multiple flashbacks, the film spans a period of almost half a century, touching upon topical issues such as the oppression of minorities (both systemic and systematic), divisive politics, state-sponsored encroachment (in the name of "projects"), terrorism and, of course, the hottest of them all, religion.
Even though Ali's character arc is nothing more than an understated version of the time-tested tale depicting the benevolent crime lord's rise and fall, the overall treatment and an eclectic assortment of characters elevate it well beyond cliché. In another gangster flick, the leading lady's role would have been limited to being the moral centre for the anti-hero and perhaps a damsel in distress. However, Roselyn, Ali's wife, gets to develop even more – though we do not get to see much of that development in the flashbacks – as the present-day segments have her essentially taking over as Ali's second-in-command when he gets remanded, and stopping at nothing to ensure his safety. And there's of course David, Ali's childhood friend and partner-in-crime who slowly yet steadily gets guilt-tripped into bigotry and double-crossing to the point of inadvertently triggering long-lasting conflicts in the region. That brings us to Abu, another smuggler friend of Ali's, who gradually grows into an influential politician, always keen on playing both sides and having the proverbial waters muddied, all while hiding under his nice guy façade. Yet another pivotal character is the district sub-collector Anwar, the initially affable bureaucrat whose pride becomes instrumental for Abu in realising his agenda. Finally, there is the police superintendent Rishabh, as well as Freddy himself, both of whom start developing conflicting feelings about their missions as the plot progresses. And much like in the similarly themed Kammattipadam, the Ramadappally and Edavathura areas themselves become characters on their own, the former evolving from an impoverished village into a conflict-ridden town over time, while the latter falls prey to organised chaos only to ultimately get reduced to no man's land, thanks to the tsunami and Cyclone Ockhi.
In addition to directing, the film has Mahesh Narayanan scripting, editing and doing additional photography as well. The cutting here is rather clinical and ruthless so as to keep the film flab-free. Malik keeps up a brisk pace throughout, remaining consistently engaging despite the length and genre. (At times, the approach works against the film too, as the motives of certain characters are left ambiguous and a couple of important relationships, underdeveloped.) Aiding the filmmaker in his primarily visual storytelling is cinematographer Sanu John Varughese, who makes extensive use of rack focus and long takes as his narrative tools. And of course, there are the art, make-up, costume and VFX departments, who evidently have worked overtime to realise the constantly evolving Ramadappally and Edavathura. Originally planned for theatrical release, the film features a deeply effective sound mix by Sree Shankar and Vishnu Govind, though the original Dolby Atmos audio has been downmixed to 5.1 for Prime. Hollywood stunt guy Lee Whittaker keeps the action grounded yet visceral, with a few brief bursts of violence serving as fine examples of non-horror jump scares. And last but not least, there is Sushin Shyam, who makes good use of Middle-Eastern leitmotifs and anachronistic grunge riffs in equal measures in his best score to date. The standout pieces are the main theme that opens the film on a melancholic note only to gradually morph into something else by the time the credits roll, and the instrumental reprise of the "Theerame" song, which plays during a critical juncture and then takes some unexpectedly sinister turns to mirror the goings-on.
It's perhaps for the first time since his crowd-pleasing turn in Iyyobinte Pusthakam that Fahadh is playing a virtuous anti-hero (after having portrayed a slew of sociopathic ones). And as expected, he underplays the potentially larger-than-life – but in reality, flawed and fragile – character during the flashbacks, letting Ali betray his emotions only when things really start going south. That said, the present-day portions – especially his emotionally charged confrontation with Freddy, complemented by the brilliantly-placed "Raheemun Aleemun" track – have him deliver a deeply affecting performance as the grieving old man. And then there is Freddy himself, played by debutant Sanal Aman who convincingly portrays the character's misplaced rage, confusion and subsequent criminal-to-crusader transformation.
As I said before, the film does not actually show how Roselyn develops into Ali's next-in-command, but it's to the consistently stellar Nimisha Sajayan's credit that the character's arc does feel organic even without those missing bits. Like in Nayattu, there are several instances where she effortlessly conveys a lot even without a single line to speak. However, it's Vinay Forrt and Dileesh Pothan who get the meatiest roles in the film. Portraying David and Abu respectively, both actors bring plenty of nuance to their characters, even managing to upstage Fahadh at times. While Vinay is right at home depicting David's confusion and desperate anger, Pothan brilliantly plays the chronic backstabber Abu with the right mix of subtlety and hamming. Joju George appears in a crucial extended cameo, as the scheming bureaucrat Anwar. Jalaja, who used to be the first choice for weepy heroines during the '80s, makes a comeback as Ali's no-nonsense mother who staunchly disapproves his ways. Other notable performances include Chandunath as SP Rishabh, Dinesh Prabhakar as Peter and Indrans as the subtly menacing Inspector George.
Of course, the theatrical experience is sorely missed for this one. I hope they'll do a limited theatrical run once the situation becomes stable!