Animals are everywhere in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malaikottai Vaaliban. It is in the frames — you see it in a donkey lurking on the side, almost threatening to jump onto the screen moments before we witness combat, you see it through the horns of a wild bull that frames the face of its master before he accepts a challenge. You also hear it in dialogue — Mohanlal’s Malaikottai Vaaliban, the greatest warrior that lived is fabled to have defeated tigers, leopards and elephants. And this naturally intrigues, our minds racing to find meaning. Pellissery also brilliantly uses other movements of nature — particularly wind and smoke — to give us a masterful-looking action film, a tribute to Samurai films, among other things. Cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan makes it hard for us to resist looking at the beauty and depravity of the war unfolding in front of us, immediately reminiscent of Japanese cinema’s historic use of martial arts to evoke emotion. But what happens when the smoke settles?
To put it quite simply, Malaikottai Vaaliban is the story of an unconquerable warrior Vaaliban (Mohanlal) who sets off to combat anyone who simply wants to. It can be a moronic behemoth who wants to show off his strength or a scheming snake (in this case Danish Sait’s Chamathakan), we know what happens to anyone whom Vaaliban has in a chokehold. Accompanying him on this mission — in this journey to nowhere really— is his mentor Ayyanar (Hareesh Peradi) and a doting foster sibling Chinnapayyan (Manoj Moses). But of course, Lijo makes this easily digestible plot his own: a chaotic and visually powerful postcard. Take Vaaliban’s introduction, for instance. We see him hastily down a bottle of arrack (if the arrack signified friendship in Angamaly Diaries (2017) and a figure of death in Ee Ma Yau (2018), here it is what brings people together) which slides and poetically washes his feet. Is this gesture a form of reverence or irreverence? When a man faces defeat, rope tackles his hands and limbs from all sides, forcing him to be still, reminding us of the bull that is trampled in a well in Jallikattu (2019), and equally of the donkey that roams the village in this film with its legs tied.
While our eyes find beauty and meaning in every frame, the writing frustratingly underwhelms. Danish Sait, who gets his hands dirty as the devil, is part of a brilliantly choreographed stunt sequence that sees him charge into the smoke-filled grounds of a Portuguese colony. But at the end of the film, what remains etched into the brain are the images, and not really the character. The action sequences, which beautifully borrow the spirit of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, are arresting. But without the finesse of writing to complement these scenes, as powerful as they may look, feel empty. The ambush of songs and the less-than-extraordinary treatment of women — the ready villainizing of a trans person, who is otherwise badass — mostly disappoint.
The second half of the film — barring caricaturish Portuguese colonists — has a very interesting idea at its core. What is the purpose of life for an orphaned unbeatable warrior? How long will the exhilaration of a victory last? asks an aching Mohanlal, who is wonderful in the film and especially here, in a rare moment of honesty. And this is a question that most of us have for unfathomable superheroes. How long will they keep winning? This question, unfortunately, comes too late in the film, and we wish Lijo focused on Vaaliban’s existential crisis rather than his praises. Hareesh Peradi gets a terrific scene in the climax, a dimension we wish was again better explored in the film. This might have perhaps given this beautiful-looking samurai sword the edge that it desperately needed.