Cast: Tovino Thomas, Kalyani Priyadarshan
Director: Khalid Rahman
Writers: Ashraf Hamza, Muhsin Parari
'Ballad of Brawls' is the English subtitle of the film's title. This grandness is very much felt in the energy of Khalid Rahman's vibrant new film. Every transition to a new scene has an ingeniously crazy idea about it. A photo dissolves into a basin, and a music troop from a future event punctuates and scores scenes set in the present. Even the camera often moves along with the punches and kicks as opposed to shooting them from a distance – this isn't a new technique for sure, but in here, this design feels warranted.
This is a story of one fight leading to another – a Chain of Fights, as the trailer subtitles it. The engagement is in the narration as opposed to where the story is going. Imagine a butterfly effect, but narrated in a disproportionately non-linear fashion — that's Thallumaala for you. In fact, the core of the quintessential climax is revealed long before we even get to it. A brawl breaks out at a grand wedding, and how we get to this point becomes the plot of the film. There's no sentiment in the journey, only slaps, kicks, and punches.
There's a scene where we follow the smoke of a lit cigarette being inhaled into a man's lungs and then being puffed out – why is it needed? We don't know, but it works within the elaborate design of the film. The whole thing reads like an energetic comic book with panels popping out with vigour, and figures from each panel spilling over to the next.
One petty fight leads to another. One may look at it as a commentary on vanity or hollow male pride, but somewhere through the film, I could make peace with the fact that it's all about the design and presentation rather than about telling an affecting story. The beginning and the ending are the same – we see brawls that lead to friendship. There's no arc for Tovino's protagonist. We don't know what made this local e-boy of sorts, this fist-happy. Even the semblance of a transformation in him (after he's packed off to Dubai) is punctured by a frantic non-linear narration. The actor essays him with sincerity, but I wish there were some underlying emotion to his character. We get a sense of his family, and his background, but no backstory. His love-interest Fatima Beevi, played by Kalyani Priyadarshan, isn't given much of a perspective either and is only used as a key piece in furthering the plot and is abandoned once their romance is established.
But there is an action set-piece inside a car that tops it all. This scene is preceded by the villain's attempts at overcompensating for a violent mistake of his. He catches the hero off-guard in a situation where the latter can't settle scores physically. Now there's tension in the air with ample space for comedy. Shine Tom Chacko is great at making his intentions look murky. Does he want to befriend the guys he wronged, or does he only want a power trip out of their inaction? The setup is strong and the payoff is absolute mayhem. The boiling point is as unpredictable for us as it is for the characters. This is where the tension is organic to the moment in the story and isn't generated by craft alone. The absence of a prominent emotion preceding most of the events is what stops the film from packing an ultimate punch.
To the makers' credit, the craft makes every single set piece engaging. A lead-up to a fight in a theatre playing Vikram Vedha is pitch-perfectly timed to the score of Vedha's entry. The comic-book-style graphic callouts inside another fight scene accentuate the pettiness of it all. There's a lot of pleasing excess in the production design of the song sequences. But if we strip away the loud packaging and presentation enabled by the technical departments, there might not be much to take home. Supreme Sundar's stylistic but very believable stunts, and the cinematic flexing in Jimshi Khalid's cinematography, make for a great pair. Vishnu Vijay follows up on a terrific Pada with yet another belter of a score that barely goes silent, and songs that are enjoyable in spite of their questionable timing. It's also hard to envision the mounting of such a wafer-thin storyline without the conviction of an editor to bring this sort of snappy energy to the storytelling. Nishadh Yusuf's editing delivers, and how. The film has the energy and vibe of a music video, and it's a feat that this tasteful pacing remains intact throughout the narrative.
There's even a sense of place and lore in how a local brawl from the past is quoted, but the writers (Muhsin Parari and Ashraf Hamza) don't tap further into this angle and contain the story within two gangs. The film wants to show how this lifestyle of fist-led paybacks is a break-less cycle, but that's about it. It's okay to be an expression about the futility of it all, but the sequences still need to have utility in a larger story. Emotionally, we only get a mere Chain of Fights than a grand Ballad of Brawls. It's a fulfilling watch for the scale and energy achieved by its craft, but I wish there were something more to it.