Cast: Mammootty, Ranjith, Shine Tom Chacko
Director: Khalid Rahman
When the protagonist of a mainstream film plays a police officer, their story has for long been the ideal of manhood, defining masculinity characterised by physical strength, domination, suppression of emotion and in the case of Malayalam cinema, big thick moustaches.
Unda, too, is about police officers and by extension the idea of manhood. But there’s a difference when we’re talking about SI Manikandan (Mammootty), the film’s hero/non-hero. Leading up to Election Day, a group of policemen have been sent to Chhattisgarh’s highly volatile Bastar area to ensure free and fair elections. And on one these nights, a group of Maoists open fire on their group. In the usual Mammootty film (or any Major Ravi film), this definition of Malayali manliness would spring to his feet, taking down every enemy single-handedly in a persistent rain of bullets.
But it’s different in Unda. Here, not only does the hero fail to retaliate, but he’s also weakened and brought to the ground not knowing how to react to such an attack. In his many years of service, he admits to not having caught a single robber, leave alone firing a bullet. And like he explains, the entire Kerala police have so far survived without a single incident of gunfire against them. So when such a group is sent to face armed attackers with a severe scarcity of ammunition, we realise that this film is not just about bullets…it’s also about balls.
This group, though trained, don’t even know how to fire a gun. The only suggestion Manikandan has to offer his juniors is when he explains how shooting is as simple as shutting one’s eye, holding one’s breath and taking aim. They know the theory of shooting but what about doing it in reality?
When the leader of this group, played by Ranjith, feels unwell, he asks SI Manikandan for help. Not only does Manikandan possess the particular medicine that will help Ranjith, he’s also seen with a box full of medicines for what must be a series of other ailments he suffers from. And when Maoists attack, he suffers from a nervous breakdown and he may even have got a heart attack. Even SI Manikandan’s hero introduction is particularly unheroic. He witnesses a thief picking pockets, but there’s no effort from his side to chase him down, beat him to pulp and save the day. All he does is smile and the thief, almost happily, obliges.
Which is why it becomes interesting to compare his character to that of Jojo’s, another police officer, played by Shine Tom Chacko. Jojo’s characteristics are perhaps closer to a more conventional idea of machismo. Not only does he assert his dominance among his juniors but he’s also seen blaming his wife for catching him “liaising” with other women. And instead of showing his vulnerability during his time of divorce, he is seen suppressing his emotions, all in the name of male ego. Like him, another cop in the group too can be seen constantly putting down a subordinate based on his tribal background.
Manikandan is their antithesis. In a terrific scene, SI Manikandan apologises to his juniors for not standing up to the Maoists and for failing to be their leader. It is only when he accepts his vulnerability that he becomes the hero, unlike Jojo who falls sick after the attack, almost out of fear.
In a sense, Mammotty’s character redefines the idea of manliness in this display of weakness. Which is what’s most remarkable about this film. It subverts every cliché that comes with the cop film genre and turns it on its head.
But the film falters when it tries to squeeze in more serious issues into its screenplay. The plight of tribals, often mistaken to be Maoists, is addressed, even in the form of an emotional speech, even though those scenes fail to play out the way it was intended. Even the way elections are conducted are critiqued though it adds very little to the film. And for a reasonably short film, certain scenes feel like they take forever to get to the point, which give us the feeling that film is lacking in drama.
These apart, it’s a film you need balls to make, especially because this is hardly the cop film one attempts with a megastar.