Cast: Nivin Pauly, Lal, Lalu Alex, Asif Ali, Shailaja Ambu
Director: Abrid Shine
Story: M Mukundan
Based on M Mukundan's story, Abrid Shine's Mahaveeryar is unlike any film you've seen before. It is a true genre-bender that combines multiple timelines and worlds to pit two forces against each other—time and power. It is also an innovative (AF) courtroom drama that places a case from the 18th century in the context of the modern Indian legal system, with the Constitution, a magistrate, and prosecutors, all coming together in service of an old King with a pressing issue.
This King's (Lal) issue is that he cannot stop his hiccups no matter what he tries. All the best doctors from his kingdom have tried to put an end to it but none have even come close. The King cannot sleep in this cycle of never-ending trips to the bathroom, followed by drinking even more water, and when the King is not at peace neither is his kingdom.
This is the context we get as we move from the 18th century to the present day with the only connection being a saint named Apoornananda (Nivin Pauly), who seems to be able to travel across time; although from his experience it doesn't look there's a lot of evolution that takes place. In what begins like a twisted fairy tale, we see the film move into the four walls of a courtroom that's hearing four different cases at once: a divorce settlement, a harassment, a theft case, and the aforementioned case where a civilian takes on the King.
At least until we arrive at the King's case at the court later on, the film plays like a stoner comedy covering gags that are absurdly funny. This includes a man who pays his ex-wife her alimony in one rupee coins and the case of an idol getting stolen from a temple where both the priest and the authorities have a questionable history. From the looks of it, the proceedings seem just and modern and it gives us the illusion that everyone is equal no matter where they come from.
But then the film only really begins after the interval with a sensational sequence where you literally get to see two worlds collide. The courtroom transforms into what looks like a king's courtyard with a throne placed directly opposite the magistrate. In one striking image, we see this seat of democracy looking straight at The seat of the monarchy to complete a visual oxymoron. How does such a legal system hold up when the King himself appears in court. Can the King ever be held accountable for his crimes or when presented with absolute power, does the court get absolutely corrupt?
This is where the film turns into an allegory. In fact, it's a film that forms fully only when you replay it in your head once it's over. It's a film that's likely to lead to several readings but what I found most fascinating is the way it gives you repeated images that places a statue of Lady Justice right next to a central female character. Dressed in white and with her eyes closed for a long period of time, the silhouette of this character is the spitting image of the statue itself.
These images get a lot wilder when the focus shifts from her need for justice to what the King needs. So when the debate in the courtroom shifts, we get the visual of a room full of men arguing over what this woman must do for the King to be able to sleep again. When read differently, this image tells us that both women and justice are the first to lose out when patriarchy needs to be served. And when it underlines this by proposing that only a woman's tears can bring back peace to this kingdom, it asks the viewer why he or she didn't even consider the solution the film comes up with.
All these vivid ideas being hurled at you can really feel frustrating just as it is fascinating. When these ideas coalesce, like they do in the last stretch, we feel like we're being rewarded for more than an hour's wait. Some ideas recede to the background when bigger ones are suggested and this again leaves behind a feeling of incompleteness. Long stretches from the beginning never come back later and there's a lack of focus that makes the film a challenge to hold on to.
But it's also not a film you are supposed to get in one go. It challenges our notions of a genre even within fantasy and there's not a single "hero" in sight. Between the stretches that barely reach you and those that absolutely blow you away, Mahaveeryar is a film that's most brave when it's most wacky.