Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Writers: PS Rafeeque, Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Mohanlal, Sonalee Kulkarni, Hareesh Peradi
“No Plans to Change, No Plans to Impress” - Thus began a quote from director Lijo Jose Pellissery's Facebook status after the abysmal responses to Double Barrel (2015). The prodigy filmmaker behind some of the most unique and audacious experiments is back with a larger-than-life project starring Mohanlal in the lead role and he seems to stick to his word even now, more so than ever.
Malaikottai Vaaliban follows the structural blueprint of a Western to the tee. The mysterious and enigmatic cowboy figure passing through places, spreading his larger-than-life persona in real-time and gaining foes all the way, is planted into a timeless period in Kerala history. The filmmaking is in stark contrast with the text and that inherent tension between the material and form propels the intrigue in Pellissery's vision of the Wild West.
The film follows a wrestler and his two men entourage, who tour through various parts of the country, banking on his ability to oust any possible challengers that they meet on the way. Malaikottai Vaalibhan gets going right out of the gates with Mohanlal being introduced in the opening stretch in a wonderfully staged action set piece. You can feel a sense of swerve and Western iconography in the way Pellissery stages this sequence.
PS Rafeeq, the screenwriter here is not concerned with zinger one-liners or epic monologues for his larger-than-life hero. Still, he makes do with a catchphrase that reverberates throughout the film that goes, “Whatever you have seen till now is a lie. What you are about to see is the truth”. This is the thesis statement of the film that hinges on the subtler implications of the philosophy.
Lijo Jose Pellissery is known for his use of such subliminal mission statements in his films that outwardly explain an inexplicable feeling that lingers in his vibes-based filmmaking sensibilities. Similarly, Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2023), his previous film with Mammootty had the lines taken from a Thirukkural — meaning “Death is sinking into slumbers deep, birth again is waking out of sleep.” That film which dealt with a person waking up from half sleep as another person demanded the suspension of disbelief rendered by the lines to make the central conceit work. This sort of surface-level strategy to drive home the central narrative helps when the protagonist's arc is prone to spacious interpretation. Unfortunately, that connective tissue seems to be largely inconsistent in Vaaliban.
In the case of Malaikottai Vaaliban, the circular use of the particular phrase in key scenes should ideally give more immediate meaning in the wider context of the film and draw out a thematic thread in between all the seemingly disjointed plot points. But, the line feels like a superficial afterthought that somehow ties Lijo's crazy ideas into one coherent body of cinematic beats.
Malaikottai Vaaliban, is a beast stuck between two worlds as it aims for the grandeur of a gladiator epic but thwarts its own ambitions with conflicting tones. The film is the kind of tonal mess that only a master of the medium can conjure on screen with its pitch lying somewhere between an epic periodical and a lyrical mood piece, two subgenres that have rarely been tangled on top of each other in such a confusing fashion before.
Mohanlal is subliminal as the central force of nature that facilitates the scale and intensity that Lijo captures with a child-like glee. There is a towering gravitas in the way his body moves and swirls with the fluidity of a ballet dancer in between action sequences. The actor gets to use his body to good advantage here and never for once we doubt the mythical hyperbole bestowed upon him by the supporting players throughout the film.
Hareesh Peradi also gets to dig deep into the psyche of a mentor figure to Vaaliban who is conflicted in his core. However, the popular stand-up comedian turned actor Danish Sait gets to revel in a scenery-chewing performance that lends the film a visceral energy. He scoffs and shouts, sneaking in and out of frame inducing cringe and contempt at the sleaziness on display, each time he tries to one-up against Vaaliban.
The female actors do not get much to do here than marvel at and ogle at Vaaliban's physique and inhuman strength. The filmmaking is efficient in the way action is integrated seamlessly into the story world and keeps the momentum on track. But, Lijo Jose Pellissery's off-kilter sensibility coupled with Madhu Neelakandan's picturesque yet abstract frames create a distancing effect in the action, and you feel at odds with the contrast in mood and tone. However, in an age where action is being reinterpreted as a means to an end, to show off the filmmaker's penchant for gory and suffocating on-screen violence, Lijo Jose Pellissery breaks down an epic hero's journey that's not afraid to breathe and take its own daring formal liberties. And this makes it a theatre experience unlike anything you would get to see on the big screen this year.