Director: Nithin Renji Panicker
Cast: Suresh Gopi, Renji Panicker, Lal, Kichu Tellis, Rachel David
Nithin Renji Panicker takes no time to establish his intentions with Suresh Gopi's comeback vehicle Kaaval, which also stars his father Renji Panicker. Right from the first shot, we get a sense of the lawless terrain (the hills of Idukki) and the people who populate this world. It's a world we know with no space for nuance in the way the characters are written — either angry people with a heart of gold or angrier people with no heart at all. But it's what he mixes with an old-school mass movie aesthetic that results in an interesting concoction. After dozens of films that milked nostalgia for comedy and romance, here's a film that does it with a genre (and a star) we had forgotten to return to.
It is this rediscovery that jolts you when the film opens with a shot of a boy praying in a particularly familiar-looking stone chapel. The words painted on its arch reads familiar too. But when one recalls it as the exact image Lelam opens with, it prepares us for the most rudimentary action movie set in a goldmine of 90's nostalgia, hereby referred to as the Panickerverse.
It's obviously old fashioned and obviously aware of it's datedness. It's not even trying to appear new, which is why it's jarring when a tombstone reminds you that the film is set in 2020. But Kaaval is a film best enjoyed when you imagine it as a 90's video cassette you recently discovered. So when Suresh Gopi's introduction scene is him literally scaring away a flying eagle with a mere stare (and a twirl of his moustache) you might as well have been watching it on a National-Panasonic VCR with blurry visuals on a BPL television.
This is a mildly rewarding experience, especially during Nithin's clever hat-tips to the Panickerverse. Like when a shady police officer mockingly calls Suresh Gopi's character a 'commissioner' — a version of Rajamani's iconic score is a legit time machine. In other places, we get references to Ekalavyan, especially when a dialogue begins with 'ee mukham' (my face).
But these could never have been anything more than embellishments to add to a solid base. In Kaaval, this base is almost non-existent. This is primarily because of a very imbalanced and confused use of the biggest mass cinema trope of them all — the Basha Formula.
A majority of Kaaval plays with the idea that both Antony (Renji Panicker) and Thampan (Suresh Gopi) are only shadows of the powerful beasts they once were. There's generally an exaggerated allusion to Antony's disability and Thampan's ageing body but these are used conveniently, without it being expanded into a consistent idea. So when we see a beaten-to-pulp Thampan crawling up the stairs of the police station, we wonder what happened to the beast who just beat up a small village using a metal suitcase from one scene ago.
The Basha Formula, after all, is knowing exactly when to unleash a star's heroics after holding him back for the majority of the film's runtime. In this, there's an inconsistency, a forced use of their weakness only because the scene that follows requires an explosion. Add to this the confusions resulting in recurring flashbacks and we never really get a sense of who these people are.
This is an issue you'll find with almost every character in Kaaval. There's no life to any of them and this is so even when people are attacked or killed. In its most painful obsession with the 90's, we have the same scene setup repeating multiple times. It starts with one of the many faceless villains confronting the hero with a threat to the woman the hero is protecting. This could be the protagonist's daughter, sister or wife but it's as though the bad guys have nothing new to say and the heroes, nothing else to get pissed off about.
It all goes downhill soon when he then tries to mix this formula with an investigative angle about what happened to Antony (the twist surprises but with no impact). The making too is generally flat with even the extremely mass moments not really building on its setup. Add to this Suresh Gopi's real life politics making its way into the dialogues (he gets an anti-abortion and an anti-unionising line) and we're stuck with a film that pushes its datedness a little too hard.