Cast: Saiju Kurup, Vijay Babu, Binu Pappu, Sudhi Koppa, Priyanka Nair
Director: Vipin Das
Vipin Das' Antakshari is a peculiar beast. If one were to describe its genre, one would have to invent a new term to do full justice to it. At the surface, it is a serial killer thriller, the kind that follows a murderer and the patterns that make up the investigation. But the writing pattern of the film is so strange and unique that it's best to call it a "serial killer musical". Now it's not a "dark" musical in the sense that Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber On Fleet Street once was. Over here, the musical aspect is used in the way songs are not just segues from one dark situation to the other, but also in the way it becomes an integral part of Das' (Saiju Kurup) everyday life.
Not only does this police officer play games of antakshari with the petty criminals he has to deal with in his sleepy town, but we also learn that he's been playing the same game for months back at home (his daughter calls him out for singing a tune he sang a month ago!). Given that a good screenplay too takes us from one point to another without making us feel the shifts, the game of antakshari and a dozen beautiful songs are used as a clever narrative tool to hold the film together.
From the outside, it's about a series of crimes that always happen in pairs. But the crime also becomes personal for Das because it appears that the next victim could very well be people from his own family. Which means that we find Das in really strange situations where his love for Malayalam songs gets questioned to give us extremely funny scenes, even during the most intense of moments.
The director adds a few touches that add flavour to this dark thriller, even though he goes a little overboard at times. What's interesting, though, is how the film maintains its commitment to the idea of music, even when it has reached a point of no return. Which means the film never gets tired of naming almost every character based on a singer. So we get Das (as in Yesudas) who is married to…Chitra (Priyanka). We also get a "Malaysia" Vasudevan, a Hariharan, a Srinivas, a Karthik and even a Jayachandran. This conceit is pushed so far that even auxiliary characters without a face go by names such as Sonu. And of course, the most important name in the film too sticks to this pattern.
Although this makes the film a game in itself, it also has a way of forcing you to notice how clever it is as an idea, lest we don't notice. Even the main subplot in the film revolves around a boy who wants to abandon his engineering degree to pursue his passion for….music, obviously. But you don't feel the same forced cleverness in the way the film never stops being a game of antakshari. What this does is plant seeds for a terrific climax where you see your favourite songs play out in the absolute last place you'd imagine seeing it.
But this is again where the inventiveness of the film begins and ends. Without the musical aspect, one can argue that the film follows a series of template decisions that dilutes its tension. For one, it's still unclear why the film spends so much time to create what feels like two big red herrings. Not only do we get little closure when it comes to the two characters but we also quite don't understand how it fits in with the large scheme of things.
Even the "trick" the film uses early on to deceive us about the protagonist's past doesn't work for too long because it becomes obvious that it cannot last. Eventually, though, it's the human story without the frills that last longer than the puzzle the film wants us to solve. Shot vividly using a series of powerful visuals, the film doubles down on its ambitions when it raises the bar and makes several points about the history of oppression and what this does to people. And when it is read along with the kind of subtler caste politics that Das himself faces in a modern setting within the police force, the film also becomes more than just a genre movie.
Although the writing itself isn't always consistent with the cleverness of its ideas, there's more than enough in Antakshari to keep you hooked. With its mood and a terrific score, it is a peculiar film that's fun, funny and intense all at the same time.