When a crime can no longer contain or content itself with the past and insists on visiting the future, it's no longer a crime – it becomes a sin, and very difficult to punish. These are the words of Robert Towne, the writer of Roman Polanski's classic Chinatown, as quoted in the book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. I was reminded of this as I watched the 2016 Malayalam film Kammatipaadam.
Like Chinatown, Kammatipaadam is about the crimes and bodies that big cities are built on and the sins that become impossible to punish. Here it is Kochi in Kerala. The lush green lands and threadbare homes of Kammatipaadam, a locality in the area, are slowly eroded by urbanization, greed, corruption, land-grabbing. Its people, especially the Dalits, are even further marginalized. In the name of development, homes are lost, families are crushed and lives ruined. And in its place, a city with shiny buildings and swanky apartments, in which there is no place for the former residents, rises.
The film takes an unflinching look at the harshness of these lives. Ganga and Balan don't even have the few choices that Krishnan does because he is an upper caste man and they are Dalits. The actors – Vinayakan as Ganga and Manikandan as Balan – are terrific. Vinayakan nails the volatile, fearsome, sometimes unhinged soul of Ganga and his overwhelming tragedy. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Ganga and Balan's grandfather dies of heartache when he discovers that these boys are assisting the land mafia and evicting people like themselves from their homes. The incident forces Balan to rethink what they do but it's too late. The violence lurking in every corner of their lives catches up with them.
Rajeev and DOP Madhu Neelakandan turn our gaze to this violence – emotional and physical. In one scene, a man is explaining to the young boys how a knife must be twisted while inside the stomach so that when you pull it out, the intestines come with it. In some sequences, the action is stylized – like a fight in jail, where convicts in grimy white uniforms maul each other against aquamarine walls. But in others, the brutality of bodies breaking lands like a punch.
What's remarkable is that the film doesn't pander to its main lead and biggest star – Dulquer. Dulquer has an inherent charm, which makes you root for his characters but he underplays it beautifully here. Part of the ache baked into the film comes from knowing that Krishnan, the smartest in the gang, could have made something more of his life. He could have, as Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character in On The Waterfront says, been a contender. He could have had class. He could have been somebody.
Dulquer doesn't get any special treatment. He is very much part of the ensemble, which includes the lovely Shaun Romy playing Anitha, the girl Krishnan loves since childhood. Their relationship, fractured by their circumstances and caste, is depicted with a melancholic tenderness. The other actors include Shine Tom Chacko, Suraj Venjaramoodu and Soubin Shahir in a terrific cameo as a local goon with deadly karate moves.
With a nearly three-hour-long run time, Kammatipaadam requires commitment. And some elements seem dated already such as the film's clumsy VFX. But mostly, Rajeev exerts a firm grip on the narrative. The award-winning DOP-turned-director instills the brutality of these lives with a tough lyricism.
You can watch Kammatipaadam on DisneyPlus Hotstar.