Director: Appu N. Bhattathiri
Nizhal is NOT a superhero movie. If you haven’t watched trailers or read reviews, I suggest you begin here without making the assumption I made from the posters. Not that the film in my head wasn’t exciting. The thought of Kunchacko Boban 2.0 playing the most gentlemanly superhero ever isn’t that hard to imagine. Given the man’s charms, even Lex Luther would rather exchange a Chocobar with him instead of fighting him. I even have a title: ‘Chocolate Hero’. His superpower: kindness, and his primary weapon: the friendship band.
But Nizhal would have worked too. A dark superhero emerging from his own shadow (that of a stereotyped hero) could have been Malayalam cinema’s realistic entry into the genre before we get to the ‘Marvellous’ Minnal Murali. Nizhal even begins like an origin story. An accident happens in the background as an indifferent owl looks on. We then see Baby (Kunchacko Boban) looking over a cityscape through a wide window wearing a black mask that reveals more of his identity than it hides.
The mask in Nizhal isn’t meant to hide anything. It’s a brace for his broken nose and Baby was the one in the car that got into the accident. He is a magistrate in the local court and this accident seems to have rattled his state of mind. He imagines rain when it’s not raining and he thinks people are judging him when they aren’t. And when he visits the shrink, the doctor tells Baby that these are early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This weakness could be his superpower too, cant it? In a sense, it is. It brings about a change in this magistrate and he seems to want more than his routine as a dispenser of justice. The timing works out too. His friend Shalini (Divya Prabha), a child psychologist, approaches him with an interesting case. A young boy named Nithin starts narrating graphic murder stories in school, shocking everyone. Could this be the birth of a Stephen King or is there truth to his imagination?
This is the fascinating foundation upon which Nizhal is built on. This boy has a strong, protective mother in Sharmila (Nayanthara, finally finding a great voice artiste in Malayalam) who is just as clueless as everyone else. But there’s something very powerful that’s drawing Baby to this boy and his stories.
The reason is shown to us using a set of visuals of Baby gradually getting better as he gets more involved in this case. But doubts remain. We get one passing dialogue of how both Shalini and Baby discuss their cases but this doesn’t justify his involvement with Nithin. From small talk, this case quickly becomes an obsession for Baby. Even Sharmila doesn’t behave like the protective and strong mother she is made out to be.
Access to Nithin is easily granted and Baby’s friendship with Sharmila too begins without friction or fuss. The foundation may have been strong but we start feeling like the building is being made out of jenga blocks. This feeling is exacerbated because the film is filled with a series of individual ideas that are tough to integrate. Like an intercut that’s used to create an almost telepathic connection between Baby’s investigation and Nithin feeling unwell. It’s the same with a possible reincarnation angle Nizhal hints at when we’re told of the day Nithin was born.
Any one of these ideas could have been developed into a film. But when they are lined up in a queue to provide one high moment after another, they barely serve any function. Another inconsistency that makes Nizhal hard to follow is the way it uses detailing. Given the film’s investigative nature, we are trained to assimilate every bit of information as though it is important. But in this, we struggle to differentiate between giant red herrings, useful details and simple quirks that merely embellish a character (like the mask and the PTSD angle).
From focusing intently, we fluctuate to a feeling of indifference when one elaborate plan is sidelined for the next. We get hints of a possible romantic angle and a fleeting romantic backstory, but these remain hints. We’re shown a couple with a role reversal dynamic going on, but it feels forced to appear cool. Characters like a nosey officer and a babysitter are given undue importance, further complicating the case. We also get an outdated way of weaving in a comedy track, even if it is functional.
But you see signs of an able filmmaker in a few of the film’s thrilling scenes. A scene between Baby and one of his visitors works only because of the way it is directed. In another instance, it’s the unusual pace of editing that makes the scene tick. Sooraj Kurup’s BGM is intentionally chaotic and it pulls away any sense of comfort in these crucial moments.
Nizhal has its share of surprises where it reclaims the viewer’s focus but it’s eventually a film with so much going on that there’s always a set of questions the film fails to answer. It uses fascinating concepts we seldom get to see in thrillers and has stretches of neat storytelling. Despite these and the performances, it’s only a shadow of the film it could have been.