When Mahesh Narayanan's Malik (King) opens to the sight of a large vessel of biriyani being ushered in, we're trained to feel as though we are entering some sort of a celebration. It is the beginning of a glorious 12-minute single take that takes us in and out of Sulaiman's (Fahadh Faasil) mansion, brimming with people who have come to see him off. There's a feast on offer and there are lights everywhere, but the mood is anything but cheery. The biriyani is Sulaiman's (or Ali ikka to his people) offering as he gets ready to go to Mecca, so he can return a cleansed man. Eavesdropping into whispers and conversations, we learn a whole lot about the man, his family and the village of Ramdapalli.
Despite a few under-confident assurances, no one seems to be sure if Ali ikka will return once he exits this fortress. A diabetic showing signs of slowing down, Sulaiman himself is incapable of expressing words of comfort as he leaves for the holy land. So when he calls out to his daughter as he's driving away, you think it is for a kiss goodbye or one big hug. But it is not (you'll have to wait two hours for the payoff).
But later, just as he's about to enter the plane, police officers take him away and charge him under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987. He is taken to prison where he has to spend 14 days in remand before his trial. This is where we begin to piece together both Sulaiman's past and his present. But for Sulaiman, these 14 days operate like a version of purgatory where he thinks about the kind of life he has lived — one of sins or one of service. It also becomes a question about what happens after his life. Where does he go next? Jannat or…
But Malik expects more from us than being an impartial observer in this 'Nallavara Kettavara' conundrum. The film uses a fascinating framing device that makes us an executioner. Through a character named Freddy (Sulaiman's nephew), we enter into the same prison, just as confused about Sulaiman's morality as Freddy is. So when people volunteer to narrate their experiences with Sulaiman to Freddy, we too are asked to make up our minds whether Sulaiman is a nallavar or a kettavar.
I use the term executioner because that's what Freddy is there to do. He has a task to complete and the people helping him make up his mind, presenting contrasting vantage points to see Sulaiman from. It is Sulaiman's mother, his enemy and Sulaiman himself narrating his early years, his rise and his fall. Through their stories, what we also learn is the story of Ramdapalli and its people, their rise and their eventual fall; taking us through the events that transpired to make enemies out of the Christians and Muslims who live there.
If Malik's soul is Nayakan, then it's body is Godfather and this integration is what makes the film an excellent update on both classics. Apart from the greys of his morality, even the fate of his children mirrors that of Velu Naicker's. But the film even goes a step further to paint Sulaiman a truly tragic figure. Of what use is everything Ali ikka has done for his land if both his mother and his daughter fail to understand him?
From Godfather, the film mines classic scenes for new meaning. A version of Appolonia's bombing gets an update, but the victims are more Sulaiman's men rather than his woman, setting off a life-altering chain of events. From Godfather 2, we get a scene where one's mother is brought into the courtroom, the difference being that it's Sulaiman's mother who is being used against him. In another instance, we see parts of Godfather's ending as a series of hit-jobs are being executed, but it is intercut with the lowest point in Sulaiman's life rather than the triumphant Michael we see at church. Even the Baptism scene gets mirrored, but this too fits into the larger comment about the Muslim-Christian conflict.
It is this conflict that's eventually at the heart of Malik. Can two minorities living within a democracy coexist peacefully, especially when politicians have so much to gain from keeping them separated? And what if their lack of unity becomes a tool big businesses need to expand the coastal village into a major harbour or a port?
Although not entirely new, the film finds inventive ways to make such a large-scale issue feel intensely personal. It does this by making its central characters representatives of their community. So instead of seeing it as a wide-spread issue that occurs between thousands of people, all we need to see is the souring friendship between Sulaiman and his partner David (an excellent Vinay Fort). And later on, when Sulaiman goes on to marry David's sister Roslyn (another reason why Nimisha Sajayan is one of our best), their son Ameer becomes a symbol of harmony between the two communities.
No main character feels out of place or underwritten and even tiny parts have a way of coming back later on to show us their impact and place in Sulaiman's life. And that's how a film with so much vastness in both scale and subject manages to affect us so emotionally. That bit of personalising events works throughout. So it's not movie posters or songs that are marking the periods in Malik. Phases are marked by tragedies such as deaths, the Tsunami or Ockhi, that too in everyday conversations among people here, bringing them alive rather than newspaper clippings.
The staging too adds to the details in the writing. In one scene, a politician's chameleon-like change of colour is shown exactly as he is changing his clothes. A red towel is first chosen as a weapon, only for it to become a source of comfort later on (a stethoscope becomes a weapon). A photo taken early on comes back later for a split second but the impact it creates is insightful. Even when a Collector assigned to clean up this village, one of his first enquires is for a latest washing machine. Or the irony of how the gang first start selling goods like perfumes to wash away the 'stink' (and the status) of being fisherfolk.
Which is why it feels so out of place when things like an amphibian boat and a make-shift submarine appear to prop up the heroism. These are scenes that are best left for films like Runway. When we see them here, they feel like missteps in a delicate movie. Because it's really not a film about a hero. At least not a hero in the traditional sense. Sulaiman, who literally gets dumped onto a pile of garbage, is almost a Jesus figure who is given a crown of thorns he does not want. He's had to pay too much of a price with nothing but disappointment to show for it. So when Sushin Shyam's spectacular Arabic score (his song Theerame is this year's best) kicks in at a particular juncture in the second half, we feel like we're among a handful of people who finally got to know Ali ikka.
Instead of highly-stylised slow motion shots or excessive colours, Sanu Varghese goes hyperrealistic to give us a film that feels like we're seeing through spools of newsreel. As a result, the people, the riots, the pain, it all becomes too real to feel like a movie. And in Sulaiman, Fahadh gets a character that has more to offer him than the other way around. In our love for mass hero movies, it's rare to see a film about a hero who had to live long enough to be seen as the villain.