Director: M Padmakumar
Cast: Mammootty, Anu Sithara, Unni Mukundan
It felt like a punch to the groin when I overheard the youngster seated ahead confess to his friend that he'd never watched Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha. This, a few minutes before Mamangam began this morning. His friend's reaction was even more alarming – there was no shock, no 'are you serious?' He just said the film used to be on Asianet a lot, refusing to make a big deal out of it, unlike me.
It's been more than 30 years since the MT-Hariharan classic released, and this bit of eavesdropping had me realise that there's probably a whole generation out there that never watched the film. With the exception of the more recent Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, this also makes it understandable why the makers of Mamangam may have thought it's about time for Malayalam cinema to attempt a mega spectacle the only way it knows how to, as a historical drama.
And so, the similarities between these two films might not even register for a lot of people Mamangam is made for. I'm not just talking about the film's visual universe…the palaces, the costumes, the horses and the swordfights. I'm not talking about the dialogue delivery in these films either, where even regular, everyday matters have a way of sounding like a declaration, an announcement (a Chaver's reply has to be given with his urumi. Not with his tongue). Dig a little deeper and you realise how Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha and Mamamgam are both indictments, meant to expose the futility of revenge. Mammootty's characterisation too shares this trait. Branded a traitor in both by his own people, these films are also his characters' journey as they explain their side of the story, hoping to seek redemption.
What makes this an interesting study is seeing how differently Mammootty performs in two similar scenes separated by a gap of three decades. Like the iconic 'Chathikilla Chandu' scene in Vadakkan Veerakatha, in Mamangam we get his Chaver Thalavan speaking to his two nephews, confessing why he couldn't kill the Zamorin and why he chose to live the life of a coward. But the setting, this time, is splendid. This legendary warrior has now taken on the disguise of Kurup, an effeminate painter. On the one hand is a defeated man accepting his failure and his weakness in abandoning his countrymen. On the other is a sensitive father-figure unable to see two more of his kind march towards imminent doom. Yet, the performance is as subtle as they come in closeup. There's no explosion, no physicality. It's internal and through the eyes, even as he straddles the tone and tenor of a warrior and the feminine softness of his new identity.
Scenes such as these make Mamangam's first hour a real treat to watch. We begin with Chandorth Panicker (Unni Mukundan), one of the few remaining men in Valluvanad, getting ready to go for the Mamangam, a once-in-12-years festival, to kill the Zamorin. The Zamorins have, for generations, been the biggest enemy of the people of Valluvanad, and Panicker, like his predecessors, must answer a divine calling from the Bhagavathi, which decrees that he too must attend the festival to kill the wily ruler. But, it's not just he who gets this vision…his 12-year-old nephew Chathunni gets one too, and both of them set off on a journey to re-write history and win back lost pride.
A lullaby plays in the background as they get ready for their mission. There's palpable gloom in every frame, and it's obvious their return seems unlikely. Anu Sithara, who plays Panicker's wife, gets a touching scene where she's forced to say goodbye without shedding a single tear. Yet, the film isn't merely about their trip to the festival. The pit stops are important too.
The screenplay of Mamangam surprises you when it briefly transforms into a whodunit with multiple versions of a murder being investigated by the Zamorin's general. A powerful foreign trader has been murdered on his visit to a brothel, but the modus operandi reveals the work of a mind that's more powerful than most men in the land of the Zamorin. In these portions, we slowly piece together the person behind this, only for the identity to be revealed in a rewarding pay-off.
Mamangam has so many scenes brimming with such exquisite drama you wished the film had remained more intimate, revolving around the characters. Like the one where both warriors are required to perform the final rites for their mothers, despite them being very much alive. But the film's pitch becomes very different as we move along.
The writing too meanders as it tries to accommodate one action set piece after another, losing the sensitivity it creates until then. Now this wouldn't have been a problem had the action choreography (by Sham Kaushal) itself turned out to be the spectacle it was planned to be. We're told that the Valluvanad brand of Chavers have the unique ability to leap higher than anyone else using their training in Kalaripayattu, but the action sequences are so datedly designed that we never see beyond the ropes holding up the actors. For a film that transforms so strongly into action mode, the concluding portions really leave you feeling dissatisfied.
The songs aren't much to write home about and a lot of characters come and go without getting enough to do. So when the good guys or bad guys get killed, we hardly know them enough for it to matter. We get some token feminism in the beginning when we're shown young girls learning Kalaripayattu. We also get the stereotypical loyal Muslim confidante-cum-fighter who is willing to do anything for the hero.
The problems are many but they still don't outweigh a lot of what the film offers. Mammootty bears the weight of his character's complexity with such ease that we see more than what must have been intended. He gets great rousing speeches without them being 'speechified', especially the one where he explains how the Zamorin isn't even really a person, just a position. Achuthan, who plays Chathunni, performs really well in situations far deeper and heavier than his age, making his interactions with his older uncle the film's highlight. Had the film focussed a lot more on these people who get ready to fight so valiantly for lost causes, we would have had a great film on our hands. But now, despite the flaws, all we get is just a good film.