Cast: Mohanlal, Manju Warrier, Vivek Oberoi, Tovino Thomas
Director: Prithviraj Sukumaran
Prithviraj Sukumaran's directorial debut is named Lucifer, and he's not kidding about that title. Murali Gopy's hugely ambitious script takes its cues from the Bible itself: Mohanlal plays Stephen Nedumpally, who is first seen in a church, and for a while, is dressed in all-white. Trust me, I wish I didn't know this, but even his undies are white — we get a flash every time he halves his mundu and raises a leg to kick a goon in slo-mo. By the end, though, he is all black, head to toe. Like the Biblical Lucifer, he is a fallen angel, though not broken. He rises again. I was reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous couplet that hinted at Satan's resilience: For Lucifer, that old athlete / Tho' flung from Heaven falls on his feet.
Can a movie get more high-minded? Yes, it can. When it quotes Shakespeare's The Tempest, and when it opens with another Emerson quote: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him." And in the opening scenes, a king does indeed lie dead. He's PK Ramdas (Sachin Khedekar), leader of IUF (Indian Union Front) and the "Bhishma of Kerala politics". There are more nods to the Hindu pantheon: Parvati and Ganesha. Then, we're back to the Bible, with dialogues referencing Galilee and Barabbas and even calling the "Saviour" of IUF as "Daivaputhran". He's Jithin, a Rahul Gandhi-like character, and he's played by a very charming Tovino Thomas. (The actor made me wish he had a bigger role, more screen time with his "chettan" Stephen.)
But despite these sky-high aspirations, Lucifer remains content with low-hanging fruit. An old-time politician, Mahesha Varma (Saikumar), says he watches masala movies because that's how he knows what the common people cheer for and what they boo at. That could be Prithviraj speaking. He amps up the already loud background score (Deepak Dev), and he throws in an item song where a spotlight travels from the dancer's navel to her cleavage. And this music video is cross-cut with an action sequence. It's the oldest of masala-movie clichés — the only thing possibly older is the slo-mo action stretch where dry leaves rise as the hero flings a henchman to the ground, and an onlooker smiles in admiration. But let's be fair. How many stars deserve this adulation more than Mohanlal? It's a role he could have played in his sleep, but he doesn't. The camera keeps zooming in to his face, and we see how much he can convey with the barest eye movement. "Enna periya MGR aa nee?" someone asks Stephen, when the latter rises in defence of an orphan child. I grinned (there's the Iruvar connect, of course, where Mohanlal played MGR) — but the comparison stays at the surface. MGR was no actor. He was a "mass" star. Mohanlal, on the other hand, is possibly the greatest actor who also does "mass" roles.
Lucifer might have still scraped by with this star turn, but the script is terribly flabby. (The film runs nearly three hours.) There are three flashbacks in the first half — one through a journalist crusader named Govardhan (Indrajith Sukumaran), one through Stephen, and one through PK Ramdas's daughter, Priyadarshini (Manju Warrier, showing how a good performer can fill out a sketchy part). And yet, not one of these flashbacks dives deep. Take Govardhan. I loved the little detail that his spectacle frames are broken and he's tied them up with a piece of string (this tells you more about him than the painfully obvious books about Assange and Snowden on his table) — but what does he know about Stephen that makes him refer to the man as Lucifer? Why withhold this information about the protagonist, of all people, whose arc is the most important?
Can a movie get more high-minded? Yes, it can. When it quotes Shakespeare's The Tempest, and when it opens with another Emerson quote: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him." And in the opening scenes, a king does indeed lie dead.
The narrative flits from topic to topic without really saying anything. There are half-hearted "feminist" nods, with a daughter lighting a funeral pyre or with the women in a political rally being encouraged to ask questions. There are half-hearted media jabs, with a channel named… NPTV. Even the central premise is half-hearted. At the start, we are told that 75 percent of money pumped into Indian politics is from dubious sources linked to the financial underworld, one of which is the drug mafia. But the film could have been about any other "issue" and very little would have changed. In The Godfather, when Don Corleone says no to profiting from drugs, he sets the story in motion — and yet, that film didn't claim it was about drugs. This film does, and when Stephen says no, he just gets framed in a smear campaign. The villain could have been an arms dealer and not a thing would have changed.
The first half is really tedious because the good guys and bad guys are revealed very early on. "The entire System is under our control", sneers Priyadarshini's husband (a not-bad Vivek Oberoi), and even the mole in Stephen's camp is outed soon enough. The second half, though, is a little more fun. It's pulpier, more shameless. The setup is done with, and now, Lucifer is just about the showdown between the good guys and bad guys – or as the film puts it, the really bad guys and the only-mildly-bad guys. Prithviraj appears as Zayed Masood, an enforcer who acts on Stephen's command. (I was amused by this on-screen reversal of roles between director and actor.) The closing scene in Northern Russia is a major WTF, but the little touches kept me going, like the twin scenes about Stephen's paternity, set in the past and the present. Since the film gets all Biblical on us, I'll pay it back in the same coin. It doesn't rise to the heavens, but it's not hellish either.