Director: Martin Prakkat
Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan
How much can the first fifteen minutes of a film pack in? For the makers of Nayattu, this is enough time to paint every lead character a complex shade of grey and also place them in an even darker world. The thriller begins with a literal tug-of-war in which Praveen (Kunchacko Boban) competes against his employer, the police force. His team goes on to win and this causes friction among his employers. The force retaliates with a slap to his wrist and a superior issues a veiled threat of dismissal, albeit in a friendly manner.
Nayattu happens in a reality where punishments are easy to be issued because moral corruption has become a survival tool for all police officers. In this case, Praveen was on medical leave, that too for back pain, when he was out participating in the competition. His senior officer Maniyan (Joju George) shares these traits as well. He fibs about using the police jeep for official duty when he was actually out trying to retrieve his bike after a night of drinking. Maniyan's regular work hours involve driving back home to check on his daughter or less innocent 'crimes' like planting evidence to trap a youngster in love with a minister's niece.
Even their female colleague Sunitha (Nimisha Sajayan) isn't a naive idealist. She briefly tells her mother to hide sacks of cement from their porch, purchased perhaps with money she hasn't earned. Another officer asks Maniyan to register a couple of 'suo moto' cases on his way out, with the lightness of asking him to buy a pack of cigarettes. Within the opening minutes, we learn the true nature of this force and we also understand that no one is insulated from its workings.
Not least the police officers themselves. In what feels like a cliche, Maniyan shares a line of wisdom to Praveen about how honest officers suffer the most, while the corrupt end up winning the medals. So when Maniyan panics when his family fails to answer his calls for a brief while, it's revealing of the faith (or the lack of it) he has in a system he has helped maintain.
The experienced Maniyan knows how it works but the other two seem to still have faith in it. Which is probably why Sunitha calls a troublemaker relative to the station thinking that it would lead to some peace for her family. And when the same troublemaker picks a fight with Praveen inside the station, he too seems to think it's fair game to fight back.
The stretch where this issue goes out of hand is among the most stressful in Nayattu. All three officers are pulled into a quicksand-like mess and the timing couldn't possibly have been worse. A by-election leaves the ruling government in a limbo and the effect of this mess has the power to change the government itself. And when all evidence points to the trio having killed a Dalit youth during such a sensitive period, the situation snowballs into a State matter that involves everyone.
This is when the film develops into a loaded thriller that follows the pattern of a hunting game. In a clever sequence, we see a farmer throwing firecrackers to scare away a wild boar. This immediately segues to a shot of a senior police officer lighting her cigarette. She is now responsible for bringing back these officers and the hunt is now within the same species.
These portions are directed beautifully with smaller, deeper moments getting as much focus as the wider, thrilling ones. In a long, handheld shot, we follow Sunitha through a panic attack as she abandons her quarrelling colleagues in a forest and walks on to the road. In another scene, their aide offers his mundu to Sunitha when he understands her discomfort and Maniyan makes us feel the shivers using his body language as he breaks down about why he could never become the father he wanted to be.
The film's always about the bigger picture and of how the entire police force is at the mercy of the ruling government. As Maniyan says, "even hired criminals have the right of refusal but not police officers." But the film doesn't spare anyone. It doesn't make the case that the higher ups are in any better position than the ones much lower down. In a symbolic shot, the top cop himself is framed from behind metal bars before he negotiates a timeframe with the CM. And when a colleague wrestles Praveen to the ground to destroy invaluable evidence, we see the statue of Mahatma Gandhi peering over them. And where does a character choose to end their life? At an abandoned building of a court, because justice is a relic.
But the caste politics the film discusses is obviously problematic. The film hints at a volatile Dalit youth misusing his party membership to exact revenge on the police officers that attacked him. Although the film tries to paint him as the outlier of this organisation, we see this character threatening the force by manipulating a law that's meant to protect scheduled castes and tribes. Given the timing, it feels as problematic as showing a villainous female character who threatens to get what she wants by 'using' the MeToo movement.
This particular stand sticks out in the film and it takes its focus away from the film's intentions. In their defence, the makers do try to balance it out. In one scene, Maniyan speaks to the audience more than his colleagues when he described the victim to be a Dalit, "just like me". This is meant to flatten the battlefield without the film looking like it is about Dalits misusing law to victimise their enemies. Despite this effort, the film might still come across as doing just that.
But if you're willing to overlook this as a result of the particularly specific election being fought, you can be completely convinced at the hopelessness Nayattu makes us feel. It is extremely well-made with Shyju Khalid's most atmospheric work, reminiscent of Anjaam Pathira, with incredible performances all throughout. With an open ending that's only comforting to the pessimist we get a terrifying film that humanises the police force without glorifying it. In a sense, the events of the film is a baptism by fire for both Praveen and Sunitha. Either you escape an enemy or you stay on long enough to become a friend of the System.