Director: Sajimon Prabhakar
Writer: Mahesh Narayanan
Fahadh Faasil's last few prominent roles have been emboldened with a distinct physicality as much as the characters' internal complexities. The old age in Malik, the scrawny frame in Joji, the bald head in Pushpa. In this film directed by Sajimon Prabhakar, the physicality is not in the look, but is baked into the story itself. Anikuttan is a man caught under the debris of a landslide, and his struggle is bound to get extremely physical. Fahadh pitches this performance at a controlled note, despite having all the potential to go as berserk as possible. But this is a survival narrative where the disaster actually humbles the character, and the actor interprets the assignment beautifully.
This is not the first time Fahadh is playing an unlikeable character, but Anil Kumar (aka Anikuttan) has a visibly darker persona. He's an almost irredeemable man, who's not even on the path of redeeming himself at the point where the tragedy befalls him. The actor plays him with a lot of restraint, maintaining an aloofness that makes both the character and performance quite unpredictable. He goes about projecting his haunted self onto the people around him, and finds somebody to blame for all his personal inconveniences. But when a calamity occurs, with no one to blame, where else can he look, but inward?
Mahesh Narayanan's writing shines the brightest when it's set on the surface of the land. The entirety of the first half is a comprehensively done setup for Anikuttan's eventual character arc. He's a casteist man who blames his sister's inter-caste marriage for their father's death. He believes jobs gotten through reservation are not honourable. All this character exposition is rolled out gradually, in parts. We see the character's deviant behaviour first, and the context, later. The flashback isn't a single sequence, but a series of stories by themselves, triggered by location and specific events. Anil's not just being anal about sudden sounds, there's a lot more going underneath that emotion, and the makers take their time to provide us with the pieces to this puzzle of a troubled man.
By tying a man's caste-based intolerance to a past trauma, the makers do sort of circumvent the question of "what exactly makes someone casteist?" That's one thing that keeps the film's caste commentary from being truly holistic. At the same time, it is indeed a monumental task to build a redemption arc for such a bleak and bigoted character who invites so much of contempt, but the writing does a fairly good job of designing a world, and events that would facilitate this arc.
Malayankunju is also a cramped film from the get-go. Anil's work setup spills over to his bed, there's a constant need to shift things around to make room for himself. There's a lot of dampness in the surroundings and in the sound, too. Even in terms of people, the film is quite crowded (with a solid cast) until it reaches its stretch of isolation. These designs help foreshadow an event that might look like karmic retribution of sorts.
The one problem with the writing of the landslide stretch, is that it chooses to focus so much on the external journey that it tidies up Anil's internal journey a little too quickly. He sees his late father in a surreal underwater dream sequence, where the latter shares wisdom about how caste divides us only until death. It's a strong thought delivered at the wrong time in the screenplay. This sort of epiphany is handed to Anil very early on in his struggle, leaving no time for self-reflection or calmer moments of looking inward. There's one beat involving a dead body and haunting images of death from Anil's past, and I'd like to have seen more of such psycho-analysing instances of this kind.
It can be argued that any sort of calmness or pause might be unrealistic, but I do believe it's fair to expect that sort of beat in here, because at a screenwriting level, that's exactly what this whole calamity is all about – looking inward. But what it actually is – a numbingly linear sequence of the character climbing upwards out of debris, with no emotional beats dividing each milestone. The character is reformed and his arc is complete the moment he wakes up in the dark and hears the baby crying. Now there are physical obstacles on his journey to the surface, but since the character's emotional travel is already complete, his physical struggle isn't as compelling as it should be.
But the attempt at designing that physical struggle is truly admirable. We have no sense of the geography of the mess caused by the landslide. We know neither the depth of Anil's fall, nor what constitutes the muddy pile above him. We're as clueless as the character, and this helps a lot in bringing the claustrophobia to the theatrical experience. Mahesh Narayanan has taken up quite the challenge for his debut as a cinematographer, and he delivers too. He understands clearly that the required framing isn't about aesthetic appeal as much as it is about serving the arc from struggle to relief. There's one particularly memorable shot from the first half where Anikuttan is irritably woken up by the baby's cry and we see some light illuminating his ear alone, almost making it look flared up and angry. He also uses a lot of graceful movement in his camerawork, something that stands out in smaller scenes.
One might think that a story of survival and rebirth is right up the alley for AR Rahman considering he has the experience of penning classic scores like 127 Hours and Maryan behind him, but his work here truncates the impact of a sequence on multiple occasions. The Disney-like, flute-based score for Anikuttan's behaviour, which includes sparks of bigotry, doesn't gel well with the darkness of the character. It almost tries to make his psychology appear cute. It's the kind of music that would've worked in a lighter and charming film like Maheshinte Prathikaram. Even in the landslide portions, the score gets quite busy and far louder compared to Fahadh's understated performance. This dissonance does a major disservice to an otherwise neatly executed story.
The final moments back on land are again pitched at a very understated note, with the writing going for a calm mood in spite of the potential of heavy drama involving reconciliation of certain characters. The scene is about Anikuttan seeking the baby again, albeit in a slightly different context. Back in the landslide, her sound gave him direction to escape, but now he might've gotten a new direction in life. It's a humble moment of wanting to acknowledge the person who led to this mammoth change in him, and the little travel within this scene is quite a wholesome beat to close the narrative.
This is a well-designed survival film that underplays much of its drama, very much in line with how Mahesh Narayanan's directorial works have come to function. It may not be as emotionally effective and impactful as other popular entries in the genre, but that it approaches a familiar story with such rootedness, makes it a fairly commendable effort.