Cast: Mohanlal, Manju Warrier, Suniel Shetty, Arjun Sarja, Keerthy Suresh, Suhasini, Pranav Mohanlal, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Nedumudi Venu
Priyadarshan's films form such a vital part of a Malayali film lover's viewing history that they operate at a subconscious level, almost like how muscle memory works. Which is to say that it only takes a second for a viewer to enter Priyadarshan's world, even if the movie is a departure from the comedies he's known for in the rest of the country. This is true to Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham as well, a world we're familiar with, but also a world that is easy to get lost in.
This familiarity comes from identifying the many aural and visual signatures that have been hard-coded into our psyche. Which means that it just hits different when you're able to feel a Priyadarshan movie just by the heightened echo in scenes set in large spaces. Even the establishing shots give us this feeling with the actual scene taking place in the background, while a set of props in the foreground take up half the frame. He repeats a lot of these in Marakkar too and at first, it creates a sense of comfort. In one scene, we cut back to a wide shot mid-sentence when an angry Kunjali Marakkar (Mohanlal) shouts at a large gathering (it's the sound that creates this familiarity), as though his voice has become the law of the land.
In other places, it's the visuals that do the job. We get a shot of a metal pot rolling down the stairs (Thenmavin Kombath), which also sets the ball rolling for a love story. Several shots are placed through the wheel arches of horse carriages and other setups repurpose aesthetic choices he made in songs like 'Onnanam Kunnin Mele' from Killichundan Mambazham. We also get a song about Lord Krishna, a set of his regulars like Suniel Shetty, Nandu and more, apart from writing decisions that take us back to Kaalapani— this includes Prabhu in a character who seems to be hungry since 1996.
But it's the utter lack of harmony between the film he's written and the film he wants to make that has resulted in this historic disappointment. It's a three-hour long film, but even this runtime doesn't seem enough for the writers to include a set of clever segues that take us from one scene to another smoothly. In one scene, we're introduced to Archa (Keerthy Suresh), but with no context before or after, we're just holding onto this information without knowing where to put it. In another instance, the death of Kunjali's partner is meant to evoke a reaction in us. But because we know nothing about him or his other partners (they all look the same at this point), it protrudes out of the screenplay as something that might be of importance later.
This is generally the feeling during the first half, which feels like a set of disjointed pieces simply pushed together during the edit. And because it's so hard to involve oneself in these conflicts or in the characters, we're constantly watching the film from a distance, reducing people to mere plot points. This is true especially with a character named Chinnali (Jay J Jakritt). The writing that has gone into him feels so uni-dimensional that one can predict what's going to happen to him even before we reach the movie theatre.
So many other characters get the same treatment. In an orgy of talent, actors like Manju Warrier are tossed around as though one stare of hers would lead to new meanings. Mukesh's character seems to have forgotten the tragedy that has befallen him a scene earlier. Actors like Arjun Sarja and Suniel Shetty walk in and out of scenes listlessly. The effort may have been to make them appear complex but the takeaway is the kind of vagueness that only adds to the confusion.
It's startling to see someone like Priyadarshan writing such basic arcs into his screenplay. Right at the beginning, we get a scene where Kunjali's mother hands him a religious amulet that is said to protect him. But when you're introducing this element so early on, it not only prepares the viewer (a heckler in the theatre rightly predicted the film's ending at this point) for the 'twist' that will soon follow, but also what the film is heading towards.
Marakkar rarely recovers from here. The fight scenes, especially the much-hyped one at sea, delivers what was promised but only when seen as a separate entity. There's no tension brewing before the fight to raise the stakes nor does it create ripples that spread across the rest of the film. Given that the film's biggest conflict is simply a love story and the resulting misunderstanding, you catch yourself saying "is that all?" It makes you feel shortchanged when you expect a movie to be about THE people, only to realise that this is just about two people.
Mohanlal too gets lost somewhere in this world, much like the viewer. He struggles to maintain emotional continuity and this leaves us with awkward scenes where even his breakdown plays out without impact. His dialect (a version of his Killichundan Mambazham tone that dilutes the big punch dialogues too) doesn't help either and we never get a grip of who he really is. In a better film, someone like Kunjali could have led a Greek tragedy as a man who has suffered so much pain that he dreams of death. But in Marakkar, he simply appears numb to everything around him with the intensity of a 5-7 bank manager who has to finish work before rush hour. This numbness is apparently contagious because that's what we feel through 181 minutes of feeling lost at sea.