Director: Khalid Rahman
Cast: Mammootty, Ranjith, Shine Tom Chacko
It's 2014. Idukki. Policemen are getting ready for their first out-of-state duty. They line up in rows before a stage, from where a superior will give them instructions. He does. He also delivers what, in hindsight, will prove to be a big joke. "Use arms only when necessary." For many of these men, who've seen little more than lathi charges, it's a redundant statement. One of them says, later, "I don't know how to fire a gun. I shiver whenever I touch it." Another cop wonders if the Kerala police have been in a shootout like they show in the movies. Even the commander of these men, SI Manikandan (Mammootty), admits he's never caught a thief or murderer in his 15 years of service. Khalid Rahman's Unda (the director co-wrote the film with Harshad) comes with a macho title: the word means "bullet". But the film, for the most part, subverts the machismo we know from the movies.
Hence the gentlest of hero-introduction shots. A pickpocket is chastened but Manikandan doesn't so much as lift a finger. It's a marvellous little scene. It satisfies fans of the star. ("Look, our hero doesn't have to do anything! His mere presence reduces criminals to jelly!") It also satisfies the mood of the story, which resists action until the very end. The rest of the time, we watch men of inaction. These policemen are shipped off to the Indo Tibetan Border Police camp in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. And there, they are told they have to prevent Maoists from disrupting the elections, which are five days away. This is a movie about waiting for an unseen, unknown enemy to strike. We don't see the enemy, either, except for a stray glimpse of two men beating up a villager. Otherwise, we keep hearing about Maoists from people, from the papers. Or we see an explosion and sense they are somewhere around.
As Apocalypse Now showed us, the decision to not put an immediate face on the enemy – or the target of a mission – is a masterstroke. For one, it infuses the spirit of genre into a largely character-driven drama. (We keep waiting for the thrilling moment when the Maoists will show up.) And two, it clears the space to dramatise these characters. Because there are no periodic battles, we get to know these men. The cop whose wife is nearing her due date. The cop who is engaged and can't tear himself away from the phone. The cop on the verge of a divorce. Or take Manikandan himself. We get to know he doesn't just spit out orders. He's a team player. When their truck gets a puncture and there's no jack around, he asks his men to hoist the vehicle so the wheel can be changed. He hoists, too. From the genre point of view, these shades allow us to play guessing games. Who will die first? The just-engaged cop? The near-divorce cop? Or, as improbable as it sounds, will it be Manikandan? After all, we do see him clutching his left arm and wincing, as though suffering a heart attack.
Despite being a story about a Malayali posse, Unda looks at all Indians.
Slowly, it becomes apparent that Unda is as much a movie about alienation. Men from the greenest state in India are transplanted to the Red Corridor. They barely speak the language. They don't know much about Maoists. And they are stranded between State and Country. When they run out of bullets, the Kerala Government thinks the people in Chhattisgarh are responsible for arms supply. And vice versa. A Bastar villager named Kunalchand (Omkar Das Manikpuri) laments that he used to teach at the school that's now become the polling booth, and he and his people were chased off when the police occupied these parts. The cops, involuntarily packed off from their homes, can probably identify with Kunalchand's situation more than they'd care to admit. You may feel "Indian" in spirit, in abstract terms, but the minute you step into another state, you could end up feeling like a foreigner.
Despite being a story about a Malayali posse, Unda looks at all Indians. It talks about Kunalchand's tribe, reduced from 2 lakh to 10,000 people. It talks about how they end up being beaten up by cops who think they are Maoist sympathisers and Maoists who think they are police informers. It gives us a peek into the background of Indo Tibetan Border Police officer Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari). He's from a family of patriots. When his brother became a martyr, he gave up his medical practice and joined the army. This isn't a drummed-up moment, though Prashant Pillai's score does generally do more work than it needs to. Kapil Dev's chest doesn't puff up with pride. The revelation is just a quiet reminder that it takes a village to safeguard a nation.
Unda is too content to be low-key, and after a while, there's a sense of the screenplay being stuck in a loop
This is what the film is about. The bullets of the title are a MacGuffin (and lead to some synthetic drama aboard a train). Unda is about what happens around these bullets. It's about land. It's about our country's obsession with caste and complexion. It's about boys (at heart) overcoming their differences and becoming men. It's about how the enemy can be someone who's supposed to be on the side of the law. It's about the question of how meaningful it is to endanger the lives of a few men for elections that are filled with corrupt practices. It's about Mammootty, who looks past his numerous cop roles from the past and finds a tender new side to the man-in-khaki archetype. It's about how to use a big star and yet not lose sight of a fine supporting cast. It's about how life isn't always fair. Seized by fears of death, you may call your wife to apologise for your mistakes, but find that she doesn't give a damn. Unda has a way of making you feel you are in for an explosion of cheap sentiment, and then laughing at you for doubting its single-mindedness of purpose.
Despite all these strengths, why does the film feel like it's not quite there? Again, I thought of Apocalypse Now, a similar story about a disparate group of men on a mission, way out of their depth in strange jungles. Through carefully placed set pieces, we got to know how the jungle got to them, how its presence invaded their very being. These set pieces informed the mission and also elevated it. Unda lacks that larger vision. It's too content to be low-key, and after a while, there's a sense of the screenplay being stuck in a loop. The final showdown is off-tone with the rest of the film, but it's a relief when we get to it simply because it takes the various blocks from earlier and actually builds something from them. But that is a smallish complaint. At the end, you are touched by what it takes to keep democracy going, even if it's as strange a democracy as ours. As Kunalchand looks on, a few cops take a group photo before leaving for Kerala. It's as though they are visitors, taking back a souvenir from a trip. The impenetrable vastness of our country does have a way of making you feel like a tourist.