Director: Jiyen Krishnakumar
Cast: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Indrajith Sukumaran, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Murali Gopy
We've all heard of "Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai." In Tiyaan (The Above-mentioned), the adage becomes literal: the actors who play Aslan Mohammad and Pattabhirama Giri are real-life siblings, Prithviraj and Indrajith. The casting, I feel, is no accident – for part of Tiyaan's agenda is to celebrate Hindus and Muslims as brothers from the same mother, Bharat Mata. We get "Tat tvam asi" as well as quotes from the Hadith. There's a grand birth-of-a-god moment, where Mohammad is endowed with supernatural powers by Aghori sadhus. As he leaves, he says, "Om namah Shivaay." They say, "Allahu Akbar." Throw in a pastor, and you have yourself a Manmohan Desai movie.
Looming on the horizon is the villain, a godman named Mahashay Bhagwan (Murali Gopy, wearing what seem to be Amrish Puri's hand-me-downs from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), who wants the property on which Giri and his neighbours have made their homes. (The setting is a sun-scorched hinterland in Uttar Pradesh.) While the godman's goons have no problems slapping around and intimidating a Muslim, they won't lay a finger on Giri. Because he isn't just a Hindu. He's a Brahmin. Giri thinks he's special too. At one point, he whips out the sacred thread and says, "Brahman hain. Haath nahin lagaana." ("Don't you dare touch me. I'm a Brahmin.)
This exceptionalism takes a turn for the worse when these goons hand a Dalit boy a piece of rock and ask him to take aim at Giri, for the way the latter's forefathers have treated people lower down the caste ladder. The boy, however, drops the stone, bows, and clasps his hands in prayer, the way Giri taught him earlier, when he was praying to a statue of Hanuman. The boy says nothing, but the horrified audience fills in the blanks: "O great Brahmin, thank you for treating me like a human being, unlike your ancestors, and not hesitating to touch me, and for teaching me how to pray your way." Tiyaan must be the first Indian film that preaches secularism even as it glorifies Brahminism.
I suppose the director, Jiyen Krishnakumar, working from Murali Gopy's screenplay, thought he was making a movie for – and about – today's India. Those Aghori sadhus state that religious conversion is wrong. Giri launches into a speech in Malayalam, because even if he's made his home in the Hindi heartland, India is not just a Hindi-speaking nation. His neighbour (Suraj Venjaramoodu), on the other hand, seeks to assimilate – he changes the sign outside his shop to say "Nayyar" instead of "Nair," so people will think he's Punjabi. A Hindu cop beats his son for eating beef, while associates of the godman munch burgers and comment, "Good-quality beef." (Irony, I believe it's called.) Meanwhile, a cop spits a mouthful of paan juice on a wall and smirks, "Swachh Bharat!"
Tiyaan comes off like AR Murugadoss meets your average Telugu star vehicle, high-concept mumbo-jumbo fused with lowbrow pleasures
The connective tissue binding these various musings is the holy war Giri and Mohammad launch against Mahashay, but no one seems to have told the director that this is the plot of every single masala movie since the dawn of cinema. Tiyaan wants to soar like the camera often does, and give us a big picture. We just see innocent villagers being harassed by a villain, until the hero steps in. I'll admit the conception of the hero is unusual. It's a combination of Mohammad and Giri – the latter decides to stand up and fight, and the former juices him up with power. I kept thinking what a good masala-filmmaker would have made from this material.
For starters, he'd have amped up the bond between Mohammad and Giri. They both suffer similar tragedies, and both dream of a centuries-old war. The relationship should have been mythic – but it comes off as strictly utilitarian, the human equivalent of phone and charger. Indrajith's performance is essentially a series of glares, possible only from an actor who's slowly begun to realise the kind of movie he's in. And Prithviraj? His is essentially a supporting character and he imbues it with the requisite star power, but his big flashback is just a stew of Bachchan memories: a Hum hoarding, yesteryear villain Ranjeet, a falcon, gangsterism in the harbour, '786'. No, the latter isn't the number of hours this film drags on for, though it certainly seems so.
Tiyaan comes off like AR Murugadoss meets your average Telugu star vehicle, high-concept mumbo-jumbo fused with lowbrow pleasures. And that is valid reason for a film's being. But the writing is a disaster. An American named Ellen (Paris Laxmi) exists only so that she can wear the most obvious hidden-camera necklace in the history of the earth, get outed as a spy in two seconds, and end up dead. A journalist exists only so that his boss can give us – with a handy PowerPoint presentation – Mahashay's backstory. There's zero suspense or surprise. Very early on, we are told how Giri is connected to Adi Shankara. Before Mahashay performs his signature trick, we are told how he does it. Why not save the tell for after the show?
There's one subtly made point, and it made me smile. People are sheep who'll blindly fall at the feet of whichever godman performs the showiest trick. But that's small consolation. After a while, I was willing to supplicate before any godman who'd make this movie disappear.
Watch the trailer here: