The cinematographer of Malik, Sanu John Varghese, opens the film with a long, unbroken take. It takes us into the household of Ali ikka (Fahadh Faasil). We are plunged into his world. It’s as if the audience were outsiders or just acquaintances at a wedding where everyone knew each other. And like outsiders, we gradually learn details by eavesdropping. For example, Ali ikka’s mother has memory issues, there’s a lot of friction between them, and there’s someone called Ameer who is spoken about.
We hear mournful sounding instruments, like the sarangi or clarinet, playing in a low tone (music by Sushin Shyam). Though the mood is one of celebration in the household, Ali ikka and those close to him are not celebratory at all. The beautiful opening shot sets up the screenplay structure. After this unbroken stretch, we see vignettes where everything is chopped up to bits — only to add up to a grand picture. Perhaps, ‘beauty’ is the wrong word here because there’s a documentary-like grittiness. This integrity is what lasts throughout the film and even a star like Fahadh is treated as a part of the ensemble.
Ali ikka is part of a coastal village of Muslims where he is a Godfather- or Nayakan-like figure who has fought the police and politicians for the well being of his people. He’s literally developed the land they’re living on; he’s a Christ-like figure who is tortured and dumped in the trash. Ali ikka may have done things for his people but his sins are neither forgiven nor forgotten. In the long opening shot, he says that he has left behind all his ungodly work. You don’t know whether this is referring to Ali ikka or the Malik (king) of them all—God himself.
As an aside, there are at least two homages to The Godfather movies in Malik. One is from part two, where we see the Godfather character chasing someone he wants to kill over a rooftop and the other one is from part one where a funeral is intercut with the murders of people who were responsible for the death of the deceased person. But unlike The Godfather of Nayakan, Ali ikka isn’t romanticised even when poetic justice is rendered to him. We don’t feel like it’s the fall of a major icon.
Like Vada Chennai and Kammatipaadam, this is a sprawling film with a lot of events and characters. Because it’s set in a coastal town, even the city becomes a part of the narrative: we hear about tsunami relief work and about a new harbour that would displace the fishing folk. Malik is also the story of two communities, with Muslims living in the coastal village that Ali ikka belongs to and Christian’s living in another village (to which Vinay Forrt’s David belongs).
At first, Ali ikka and David are best friends and their people get along famously. There’s a wonderful image of Christ extending his hand to the sky but it’s actually pointing to the mosque in the other village. This embrace is juxtaposed beautifully with a Muslim man is expressing his wish to marry a Christian woman. But the rest of Malik is how the two communities are manipulated by the police and the politicians.
Whether it’s Vinay Forrt, Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan as Ali ikka’s wife, Dileesh Pothan as a politician, or Joju George as a collector, everyone gives a masterclass in the art of vanity-free acting. There are no actorly moments and yet, I was very moved by two moments. The first one is when Fahadh Faasil explodes emotionally in front of a young boy, telling him what he feels exactly. And the other is the look on Vinay Forrt’s face when he realizes that he has inadvertently been the cause of a great tragedy.
Malik is a giant leap for Mahesh Narayanan as a director, and more importantly, as a writer. Take Off and CU Soon were woven around a central character who was in some kind of trouble. So, at least, there’s one character that the audience can root for and other characters could be created around it. But in Malik, you have so many characters and each one of them needs to be interesting and coherent so that they stick in the minds of the audience.
Take the scene where Ali ikka’s mother visits a patient in a hospital. The film is broken down into three different flashbacks, each narrated by a different person. This scene begins the first flashback. The end of this stretch is amazing because it doesn’t end where you want it to. It also defines the mother’s character in a way you totally don’t expect. And it lays the stage for the second flashback; so much is done within a short span of time.
I also loved the scene where Ali ikka finds that his son is about to be baptised when he wanted him to be raised a Muslim. You expect a war of words but what happens is so beautiful and ends with a reinforcement of the relationship between Ali ikka and his wife. Even the minor characters are so beautiful. Take Freddy who is defined not so much by what he does but by what he’s told and asked to believe. Two mothers visit him at various points: his own mother tells him that Ali ikka has to die for what he did to their people but another mother (Ali ikka’s) argues for a more righteous kind of punishment. What is Freddy to believe?
Malik follows the Godfather template but the various touches given to characters and events percolate all the way down to make the film a very local one. Mahesh Narayanan makes us see Ali ikka as both an angel who is worshipped and a devil who is denounced. He tells a hero’s story in a most unheroic manner, and that’s the most brilliant thing about the film. Malik is one of those movies that would continue to reveal as you rewatch it because it’s densely packed with information. It’s a spectacle, not a grand spectacle but an intimate one. Malik proves that often great cinema is not about what’s being told but instead about how it’s told. In other words, form is more important than content.