A short descriptor of Malik could be – a Malayalam Nayakan. Like Mani Ratnam's 1987 classic, this film is also a sprawling story of crime and punishment spanning generations and decades – from 1965 to 2018. The sea plays a pivotal role. Nayakan is set in Mumbai. Malik is set in Ramadapally, a fictional coastal village in Kerala. In both films, the vast waters provide the backdrop for smuggling and romance. And in both, the protagonists are criminals who lead lawless lives but also have a strong moral centre. Velu Naicker and Sulaiman Malik are benevolent monarchs of the area they operate in and protect. But their lives are tainted by violence and loss. They age as we watch and both are eventually laid low by tragedy and time. At the end of Nayakan, when Velu's grandson asks him, 'Are you good or bad?', he says: I don't know. I suspect that if the question was put to Sulaiman, his reply would be the same.
Malik begins with a virtuoso 13-minute-plus continuous shot. The sequence is dazzling in terms of craft, ambition and dexterity – the stitching is seamless. But director Mahesh Narayanan and DOP Sanu John Varughese aren't merely strutting their technical prowess. The opening establishes Sulaiman's world, his contradictory life as a devout Muslim and a lawbreaker, his authority as a godfather who the poor and voiceless turn to, his fraught relationships with his family. It also establishes the overarching themes of Malik – religion, power, charity, morality, politics and politicians who ultimately poison everything.
The film then runs for a daunting two hours and thirty minutes but the length doesn't weigh down the storytelling. Mahesh, who multitasks as director, writer, editor and second-unit camera operator, structures Malik like a novel. The story begins in contemporary times. Three flashbacks by different narrators bring us up to speed on what created the current circumstances. Multiple narrators enable us to see multiple points of view. The cast of characters is vast and it took me some time to find my bearings. But Mahesh doesn't lose grip on the narrative. Like the conductor of a grand symphony orchestra, he masterfully alternates rhythms and dramatic beats, creating an aching, soaring saga.
When we first meet Sulaiman, he is a lion in winter. His face seems hollowed out by sorrow. His shoulders are hunched under the burden of what he has done and what he has endured. When his wife reminds him that there is danger in going out, he says, 'I have quit all my ungodly work. Whom should I be afraid of now?' And yet there is a certain majesty about him. The power he exudes is palpable.
This formidable spirit is in place even when Sulaiman is a petty smuggler in the 1980s. His career in crime begins with bringing in colognes and selling them for 15 rupees a bottle. He gives it away cheap because he doesn't know what it actually costs. But even as Sulaiman is breaking the law, he is helping to clean up the garbage around the masjid in Ramadapally and ultimately, construct a school. Like Vijay in Deewaar, Sulaiman's criminality fractures his relationship with his mother. But even she has a moment of pride when the school is built. Sulaiman is a nation builder and a humanist. He marries a Christian girl Roslin but he doesn't ask her to convert. Throughout his tumultuous life, he resists parochial definitions of Islam, insisting that the school and mosque also serve the Christian community in Ramadapally.
Sulaiman's life and actions are rooted in his faith, which looms large over the film. A key sequence is set against the Uroos festival. Religion and its rituals – both Muslim and Christian – anchor the film and give the plot gravitas. The malik in the title refers to Sulaiman but also to a higher power. Sulaiman's closest friend and partner-in-crime is Roslin's brother David. In one of the best scenes in the film, the two sit under a looming statue of Jesus Christ, which looks toward the mosque.
But ultimately, religion becomes a wedge. The Muslims and Christians of Ramadapally are played against each other by police and politicians. Poverty, illiteracy, the desperate desire for a better life make them susceptible and relationships of a lifetime devolve into shrill conversations about our people and their people. The film's ending also hints that these not-so-sacred games played out in the name of God continue to prevail.
This vast saga is anchored by strong performances. Vinay Forrt as David; Joju George as the collector Anwar; Sanal Aman as David's son Freddy; Dileesh Pothan as the politician Aboobacker and Jalaja as Sulaiman's mother are all stellar. Nimisha Sajayan is terrific as Roslin, an educated woman who is capable of strength and strategy. She makes a formidable sparring partner for Fahadh Faasil, who plays Sulaiman. This is the kind of role that actors perhaps dream of – the chance to play the lifetime of a character, ageing from a sprightly twenty-one-year-old to a senior citizen. Fahadh hits the right notes for each stage of Sulaiman's life – his belligerent youth, the sweetness of his passion for Roslin, the fatigue of his failure to stem the tide of violence and communalism and his sad longing to make amends. Fahadh combines delicate melancholy with majesty and becomes, in every way, a malik.
The tragic interplay of religion and violence is enhanced by Sushin Shyam's music, which is mournful and haunting. Especially the gorgeous 'Theerame'.
Mahesh tips his hat to classics of the genre – one sequence that cuts between a funeral and violence echoes the iconic cross-cutting of The Godfather. But Malik is much more than an imitation. Mahesh has created a memorable portrait of the power of religion to save and scar.
You can watch the film on Amazon Prime Video.