Cast: Chemban Vinod Jose, Siju Wilson, Sudev Nair, Poonam Bajwa
Director Vinayan’s new venture is titled rather nobly, referring to the time period it’s set in, when it could have so easily opted for a character’s name. The film’s primary cinematic liberty – and the story’s conceit – is that of bringing together three different historical figures who were active during that (titular) period in Kerala, to weave a fictional chronicle of resistance. It’s totally not a stretch to be reminded of RRR by this What If-like concept.
The voiceover narration begins with Mohanlal and ends with Mammootty, lending contemporary significance to a pop-culture project that’s trying to document the history of its region. Nangeli, Kayamkulam Kochunni and Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker are personalities who have permeated public consciousness through historical accounts and popular culture. This particular film uses Velayudha Panicker as the primary anchor to add dramatic context to the familiar tale of Nangeli. The former thus becomes the “hero” of the film and a mentor figure to the latter, who is the only character with a semblance of an arc in an otherwise flat, one-dimensional group of characters.
This one-dimensional nature isn’t a problem with the antagonists, for the depravity of their crimes is enough to lend weight to them as characters. But it’s the protagonist Velayudha Panicker’s uninspiring travel as a character that stops the film from being as affecting as it should be. There’s barely any tension felt in his very first instance of revolt. It’s a classic setting for the ‘unlikely hero’ trope to pack its punches. But the problem here is the lack of focus in the emotions that precede his actions. There’s more effort in elevating his physical punches with stylistic slow-motion than giving a sense of who he is as a person.
The very next sequence features a significant time jump, and he’s now a well-known messiah with a peculiar “look”. This reveal of a transformation could’ve been a good instance to use slow-mo, but it plays out in an extremely matter-of-fact manner. It’s quite bothersome that a film so obsessed with “elevation” in its fight scenes, doesn’t know when to prop up the hero as much as it effectively props up villainy.
The action set-pieces – there are a lot of them – have nothing beyond their location to differentiate one from another, and get numbing with the overuse of painfully monotonous slow-motion. The film doesn’t sustain or earn interest in spite of being commendably focused throughout the narrative, except for the one weakly conceived song at the king’s palace.
Siju Wilson as Panicker has the frame, the build and the gaze of a noble warrior, and is quite an inspiring casting choice. But the writing barely serves his efforts, preserving him as a mere “figure” throughout the screenplay, where he should ideally register as his own person. The one moment where he has to reverse a decision he’s made in the past – to not carry out a mission for the king – is embarrassingly robotic in both writing and execution. Firstly, there’s not even a line or pause given to register a change of heart. It’s a totally practical decision to make, yes, but I’d still like to get a sense of his internal dilemma, even if it’s for a fleeting moment. So, there’s your lack of emotional logic in the writing. Secondly, there’s not even a close-up for this character-defining beat. Now that’s a woe of the execution.
The presence of Kayamkulam Kochunni, though rendered animatedly by Chemban Vinod Jose, ends up looking like an almost insignificant addition to this narrative. His character has no emotional bearing in the story, and is reduced to a mere plot device. The film also comes across as judgmental towards him in spite of speaking of his Robin Hood-esque efforts.
Newcomer Kayadu Lohar essays Nangeli with spirit, but the film’s sensibilities are too dated for the character to inspire intrigue beyond what’s being told on screen. I constantly wished the narrative were actually centered around her and the journey towards her tragic end. This is truly her story. Her arc has milestones, a mentor figure, and its own subplot too, with the one exposing how patriarchy functioned within oppressor caste circles. The ingredients for a compelling central character are all in there, but putting the male figure’s generic story at the center of attention ends up looking like an absolutely lackluster choice.
Velayudha Panicker’s well-timed entry at moments of peril seems like a cinematic liberty, but his absence is indeed felt in the climactic sequence, and this is the only place where the character registers genuine emotional impact. Indrans makes a last moment appearance to add weight to the drama, and he undeniably does, though this slightly appears like a cheap manipulative trick deployed by the makers. The gore in the climax also feels excessive in spite of the blurring, and I’d go on to say it’s lowkey unearned for the way the film treats a character until that point. It’s disappointing when such a culturally significant and emotional story ends up inciting such a cynical reaction.
Nobility and intention can, at times, make for an effective film (especially if the craft provides something to takeaway), but Pathonpatham Noottandu is not it. The dryness across the board here makes the film read like impassive anecdotes from a history textbook, with barely any use of the texture that the medium of cinema can bring.
This story was originally published on September 9, 2022