One, Starring Mammootty, Is A Portrait Of A Leader As A Democratic Man
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Director: Santhosh Viswanath

Cast: Mammootty, Murali Gopy, Joju George, Salim Kumar, Mathew Thomas, Nimisha Sajayan, Madhu

Spoilers Ahead…

One is a character study of Kadakkal Chandran (Mammootty), a fictional chief minister of Kerala, through the eyes of the people he represents. Before we even meet Chandran, we see how Dasappan (Salim Kumar) and his family get unwittingly embroiled with the state when his kids Sanal (Mathew Thomas) and Seena (Gayatri Arun) anonymously post a scathing message about the chief minister on Facebook. A film about a politician who puts people first begins with an extended sequence about their problems. 

Both Sanal and Seena are triumphant at first, but it turns to dread when they realize that they could be caught. We see how the chief minister is remote enough to be mocked and yet his power inspires knee-jerk fear. Sections of the government have an axe to grind with him and the opposition, led by Marampalli Jayanandhan (Murali Gopy), hate the chief minister.

And that’s when we’re shown the silhouette of the great leader for the first time—it’s actually a huge cutout of Chandran that lights up briefly during a lightning strike. We’ve not met our subject yet, but we’ve seen his image built up by the people. They feel a mixture of hate, awe, fear, and admiration for him, but what is he really like?

If Chandran had to be described in one word, he’s democratic. He shows respect for the opposition, a willingness to negotiate. He also tries to pass a bill that allows citizens to remove an underperforming MP or MLA. But these two narratives don’t come together because the film moves from one to the other through short sequences and doesn’t make a sustained point.

The bill is Chandran’s dream since he was a college student and he argues that it would give citizens ultimate control over governance. This arc had the greatest potential for something like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln where a savvy but detached politician manoeuvres friends and opponents to pass a historic bill. The bill could have been a symbol for Chandran’s democratic ideals. His fight to pass it could have been the main narrative.

But writers Bobby & Sanjay focus on Chandran, the extraordinary politician, not on narratives. The bill is picked up at the film’s end. Until then we get sequences with Chandran discussing politics with his own confidant Babychan (Joju George), his partymen, and the opposition. These conversations are allowed to breathe, with people stating and restating their points, splitting hair to gain an argumentative advantage, backing off when the opponent is ticked off—it feels cerebral without feeling intelligent. 

It’s the droning conversation of a politician navigating everyday micro-problems before they explode. It allows for detailed dialogue-based exposition of Chandran’s mind but it doesn’t create drama. For those familiar with Kerala state politics, they might take on a significance deeper than one merely based on information in the film. 

But these plodding, repetitive scenes bolster Chandran’s democratic credentials. He’s not the kind of chief minister who sways the opposition with rhetoric. He gives away a foot so he can gain an inch. For instance, he personally does away with parts of his security apparatus, but refuses to force others to follow. These scenes have none of the frisson of getting a bill passed. It’s like listening to unedited tapes of negotiations when you could, instead, be seeing Chandran transforming the world with a law that gives people the power to fire politicians.

Chandran’s personal life is virtually non-existent, but his barebones relationships with his sister and Babychan reveal the extent of his personal sacrifice: he has no one to live for but the people. When his sister leaves after a visit, he asks in an uncharacteristically broken voice if she could stay for a couple more days. He doesn’t compel her as an elder brother. He, democratically, makes a request, which she denies, and he accepts it. He’s not a democrat just for the camera. 

Or take the scene where he literally forgets how to write his signature when he tries to seal a compromise deal with the opposition. It’s as if he’s losing his own identity to ensure that the people preserve theirs. You see this bipolarity in Mammootty’s portrayal throughout the film. He is authoritative as a chief minister and yet polite as a person. He is both the man and the image at the same time.

There are scenes similar to the one in Darkest Hour where Churchill gets on a train and meets members of the public. Chandran takes an impromptu auto ride, he explains what true education is to college students, talks about what being a barber’s son means to him. You see Chandran’s past through these scenes and they portray Chandran as an ideal chief minister who connects with his people. 

But with a background score that erupts on cue and repetitive slo-mo shots of Chandrans feet, walk, and gestures, this sequence has some great moments while also getting tedious, especially if you don’t fully understand the political context. 

Finally, the film hesitantly picks up the narrative about passing the bill. The end result of Chandran’s efforts are not what we expect, but that’s used superbly to reinforce his democratic image. Chandran believes that success and failure don’t matter as long as the cause of democracy is pushed further. One has taken the same attitude towards it’s subject, chief minister Kadakkal Chandran.

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