There’s a lot the makers of Mukundan Unni Associates have done to underline the extremely dark tone of their pitch black comedy. Not only have they maintained an edgy, thriller-like mood for the promos, but they have also created social media accounts for its protagonist Mukundan Unni to give you an idea of how his mind operates. Even the film begins with a declaration: “human beings are mostly grey. But in some cases they are just black”. You understand this need to market the film with care because a) this is NOT a feel-good Vineeth Sreenivasan film and b) a film written around a grey character seldom inhabits a universe so bleak and hopeless. Empathy, for instance, is so far removed from the film’s Wayanad setting that it makes the Black Hole feel like a cheery honeymoon destination.
The hyperbole is intentional because Mukundan Unni refuses to follow patterns of films that are written around a twisted protagonist. In most cases, when we’re introduced to a character with a broken moral compass, you almost always get people around them upholding higher values to contrast the protagonist’s mindset. But in this film, even the nicest person is opportunistic and self aware, with the only difference being that they have been painted with a lighter shade of grey. If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s easy to think of the film as an indulgent exercise, made to reinforce the notion that this world is an inhumane, hopeless place. But if you picture yourself as a cynic, chances are you’ll find Mukundan Unni Associates both highly enjoyable and oddly comforting.
And that’s because all of us have a Mukundan Unni within us. He isn’t a real human as much as he is the manifestation of our every intrusive thought. What that has done is remove any kind of filters preventing Unni (Vineeth Sreenivasan) from acting on even his most shocking urges. This lack of empathy also means that Unni needs only two kinds of people in his life—partners in crime or people he can use to get ahead. If someone fails to fall under either categories, they are dispensable, even if it’s his mother.
Yet it’s a miracle that we remain invested in Unni’s twisted plans for world domination. There could be many reasons for this but at the onset, it’s the astute balancing act of the screenplay to show us just enough for us to not be repulsed by its hero. The plot itself revolves around the murky universe of ambulance chasers who collude with accident victims to scam insurance companies. Set in and around the unpredictable, hilly roads of Wayanad, accidents are almost a daily reality with every new casualty presenting an opportunity for money. But even in a film that revolves around the emergency ward of multiple hospitals, we rarely get to see a drop of blood. And when it’s the turn of a bus full of students to become victims, the film is clever enough to keep them at a distance, lest we feel an ounce of sympathy for them.
Perhaps the other reason why the film doesn’t quite slip away is the lightness with which director Abhinav Sunder Nayak has handled this world. With the help of animation, tiny cameos and the ingenious use of voiceovers, its evil protagonist remains weirdly endearing. I couldn’t think of many films that achieve this middle ground, but the ones that come close are the “bad guys” we find in films like Megamind (2010) and Despicable Me (2010). It also helps that the film adds a second layer to this weird in-between by choosing to cast Vineeth for this role. Through his long lineup of films where’s he’s generally played the good guy, the film keeps surprising you with just how far Vineeth’s image can be subverted with such a role. In a scene filled with great cinematic beauty, you see Vineeth expressing an emotion you’ve never seen him do before. Unni’s actions have resulted in a major accident that causes devastation. But we do see the smirk of an evil mastermind’s plans coming into fruition. It feels more like the unadulterated glee of a wicked five-year-old who has just burned down a toy store.
What adds to this mood is the use of Unni’s voiceovers. These are not lazy additions made to explain the scenes or the plot to the viewer. They behave like commentary urging us to see the world through Unni’s eyes, even as his actions force us to keep a safe distance. Yet when these lines are spoken, almost always in English, they present some of the film’s funniest moments. A phrase he uses to describe a change in fortune — “a magnificent resurrection" — had me laughing well into the next scene.
But if the film doesn’t end up feeling like a set of scenes with an evil man getting what he wants, it’s because the screenplay is loaded with several clever devices that would have worked just as well, even if this was a thriller about professional rivalry. An earlier shot shows a stranger simply walking past Unni and a rival, as the latter is seen distributing bundles of cash. It’s done so subtly that you're probably not even going to notice it. But when another similar scene is set up in that exact same corridor, you realise how it’s simultaneously making a statement about karma and the cyclical nature of life.
These side notes about larger philosophical concepts give these characters a 'before' and an 'after' that fall outside the events of the film. We’re expected to imagine for ourselves the circumstances that made Unni who he is today and who he will become tomorrow. Again, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you hope for karma to come visiting. But if you’re not, you’re probably imagining Unni being chauffeured in his new Mercedes. When you have a brilliantly conceived character like Mukundan Unni, it’s like the film can just keep writing itself around him. Add to it a performance you can call Vineeth’s best (watch out for a hilarious scene during a condolence meeting) and you have a film that isn’t burdened with the duty of punishing or fixing its sketchy protagonist. The nanmamaran (tree of virtue) has not only fallen with this film, but its director has also repurposed that wood to build a tomb for Vineeth’s good boy image.