Cast: Mohanlal, Unni Mukundan, Saiju Kurup, Shivada, Anu Sithara, Anusree
Director: Jeethu Joseph
Among the reasons why Jeethu Joseph’s third film with Mohanlal doesn’t quite achieve the full potential of its promising setup is the weight of high expectations riding down on this superhit duo. Not only did they achieve a thriller masterpiece with Drishyam but they managed to follow it up with a compelling sequel as well. The standards have been set and it’s not easy for a film like 12th Man to match that, especially when it follows the themes of a thriller like their earlier films.
The director, though, builds a solid case for a chamber drama set in one resort through the course of one day. It’s a reunion of sorts as five couples and their one single friend meet before one of them gets married. At the outset, all of them appear to be the very definition of decent, educated men and women. They are privileged and sophisticated but they also appear to be a set of good friends who’ve not let issues of early adulthood affect their bond. Given the chronology of the film’s events, it’s perhaps best to use a Malayalam phrase to describe them. They are what you’d call pakal manyanmaar.
The emphasis on the chronology is because the group’s decency and uprightness are limited to the daytime (pakal). As the day shifts into dusk and then on to nighttime, we also see their bright, pretty faces recede to make way for their darker selves. Like skeletons tumbling out of the closet, no one is the saint you thought they were. The writing choices here are interesting in an effort to use the audience’s biases against them. A recently separated woman is shown drinking, smoking and spending time with a married man, as if to create a character that’s closest to committing a crime. On the other end of the “moral spectrum” is the stereotypical paavam who believes people sin because they are not fearful of God.
Even if you don’t buy into these tricks, the film still manages to give you 11 distinct characters, their individual equations and the personal baggage with which they arrive at this celebration. The pakal manyan phrase gets a neat extension onto the titular 12th Man (ironically, he’s only the 6th MAN), played by Mohanlal. His character is that of a daytime drunk who says the crassest of things to the women there. He fits outside the norms of decency set by the group and it also fits into the film’s larger point and Jeethu Joseph’s most favourite life philosophy—visuals can be deceiving.
As the 11 insiders sit down for dinner and drinks, the film introduces to us a dangerous game featuring unlocked cell phones and a butt load of secrets. From stealing to lying, coveting to murder, we learn pretty soon that there are not many commandments left to break during this last supper. And when the action shifts entirely into one dining room after one of the 11 is found dead, it’s also time for the group to get their just desserts.
This is also when the aforementioned expectations start to weigh down on the film. As an audience, we’ve trained ourselves to never take Jeethu Joseph lightly, especially when it comes to his ability to keep springing surprises. Which means that it’s no longer enough for the film to move unpredictably, but these twists have to also spring up and bite you. But given the nature of the chamber drama, there are only so many possibilities the script can explore to arrive at an ending. And as with 12th Man, once you’ve considered each person in the group as a possible culprit at least once during its runtime, how shocking can it be when a name is revealed towards the end?
This aspect of the film backs itself into a corner because it doesn’t have the room to give you a Jeethu Joseph Twist™ at the end. The 160-minute runtime too adds to this feeling because the nature of the film further adds to the claustrophobia. So when these characters begin to get exposed for their dark pasts, one after the other, it feels like a reality show you’d name Worst Person Wins.
The film tries to sidestep the monotony of this closed room by taking us back and forth to recreate the night as the events unfold. In places, the writer uses the unreliable narrator trope to keep things interesting. But the device I found most distracting is the overuse of jarring transitions to keep moving the drama in and out of the dining room. This is where it keeps reminding you that you’re eventually watching a lockdown film. In some places, these transitions are so tacky that you can practically smell the green screen. All of this chips away from a promising setup about hypocrisies and the facade of decency all of us hide behind. It’s still eminently watchable, but that’s hardly enough from the team that left you with one of the best ever endings in Malayalam cinema.