I must've been 11 or 12 when I saw Priyadarshan's Kaalapani for the first time. By the time I finished it, I was overwhelmed by strong emotion. Not only was I impressed by Priyadarshan's craft -- I exclaimed back then that it was on par with anything seen in a Hollywood film -- but also by the emotional impact registered by its events and characters. I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to burn in the deepest, darkest recesses of hell.
The scale of Marakkar, too, made me wonder if it's a product of Hollywood. I was astonished and felt proud of how far the Malayalam film industry has come. There are some things that only someone of Priyadarshan's stature can pull off. Recently, I told a friend that in terms of versatility and vigorously imaginative artistic style, Priyadarshan is comparable to Spielberg.
Marakkar is yet another testament to the director's remarkable ability to paint in broad strokes. Unfortunately, it falters when it comes to the emotional stakes. In that regard, it comes nowhere close to Kaalapani. It's a pity.
Marakkar is a weird movie. In multiple instances, it seems as though some of the actors came prepared for a comedy but were told at the last minute that it's a serious movie. This tonal inconsistency often works to the detriment of an epic that we are supposed to take seriously.
The heightened theatricality of the performances -- which gives one the feeling of watching a play -- and the clunky dialogues -- which seemed to have difficulty shaking off the Kilichundan Mambazham hangover -- end up diluting the potency of the narrative to a considerable extent. I wanted to be moved by it, but I was left feeling cold.
Such moments compel one to say, "Njammalu bellaandu aayi poyi." However, there are a couple of instances where the comedy is intentional and works brilliantly, say, the scene where Kunjali Marakkar makes a threat and asks someone to translate it into English. It's a perfect coupling of a 'mass' moment enhanced by the application of superb comic timing.
Now, I would be willing to overlook these aspects had Marakkar been an entirely original work. I was struck by deja vu in several places. It seemed to have recycled, in addition to great works of literature, ideas from a few Hollywood and foreign epics, and some of Priyadarshan's early works as well. At least one moment in Marakkar bears a strong resemblance to a similar sequence in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy.
(For those who have seen the film, I'm referring to the part where Kunjali Marakkar expresses regret over killing someone he shouldn't have). Another scene is seemingly a hybrid of the tragic finales of the Brad Pitt-starrer and Priyadarshan's 1991 film Abhimanyu.
I mention the latter because treachery is a predominant theme in Marakkar. But Abhimanyu gained a lot by making us care for its main characters. I remember being quite disturbed when I saw that film on television as a child. I didn't find any such moments in Marakkar.
Interestingly, the only plot development that managed to move me, to a certain extent, is the romance between a Chinese warrior Chinali (Jay J Jakkritt) and Archa (Keerthy Suresh). It becomes a cause for most of the chaos.
You see, this is a story about uneasy alliances between unlikely allies, and most of the time, it's the internal threats that prove to be more troublesome than external ones. But how are we supposed to feel for star-crossed lovers if only one of them, Chinali, has a proper character arc? Archa is like just another thampuratti kutty, like the one played by Monisha in Perunthachan.
But, at least Kunjikkavu Thampuratti had more personality than Archa. If someone asks me what quality of Archa stands out the most, I can only answer with, "Well, she plays the sitar." It's amusing that in a largely dialogue-driven film, it's the guy uttering just one or two words who manages to be a poignant presence. Just imagine Game of Thrones but with Hodor being the only notable character in it.
The other character that makes a significant impact is Mangattachan, played by Hareesh Peradi. The veteran character artiste proves once again that he can completely disappear into a role, be it negative or positive. Aside from Chinali's, it's Mangattachan's arc that tugs at one's heartstrings. Hareesh Peradi is to Marakkar what Peter O'Toole was to Troy.
While the presence of such strong supporting characters is commendable, I wished the eponymous character also exhibited similarly distinct traits. By this, I'm not implying that Mohanlal is terrible in the film. It's just that we have seen him deliver relatively more memorable characters in his early associations with Priyadarshan. I would also go so far as to say that Mohanlal's 15-min cameo in Kayamkulam Kochunni was far better than his role in this three-hour movie.
I mentioned earlier about threats. That's another one of the film's major problems. We are told that Kunjali Marakkar would encounter a lot of threatening characters, but aside from one or two instances, the film fails to give us a sense of the doom that would befall the characters.
Sure, they are staged well, and being the deft visual storyteller that Priyadarshan is, he conjures up many tempestuous images. But due to the absence of dramatic tension, they failed to elicit in me any reaction aside from, "Wow! What a frame!"
And, trust me, we get plenty of spellbinding frames borne out of the combined robust imagination of Priyadarshan, his director of photography S Thirunavukarasu, art director Sabu Cyril, and VFX supervisor Sidharth Priyadarshan.
In some, fire and water meet; in others, the moon/sun and fire are placed strategically in the same frame. The foreground and background are packed with enough details to lend the canvas a sense of richness. The visual effects seamlessly blend with live-action photography, be it the maritime battles or thousands of soldiers charging towards a fortress.
But Marakkar also ails from the same problem that affected a lot of other Indian historical epics: the lack of speed in close combat, thereby rendering them bland. I should be feeling extremely distressed at the amount of hype accompanying this film. But since I had kept my expectations low, I'm more upset at the ridiculous pre-release drama.
Imagine the number of news articles film journalists had to write. That drama was more interesting than what the film offers. I recently posted on my social media page that someone should make a Steve Jobs-style film in which each chapter depicts a press conference where someone announces that the film is going to OTT and, in the next, says the complete opposite and repeats it two more times.
It can be titled 'Thenga Udaykku, Swami' (Please Break the Coconut, Swami), a reference to a line from Midhunam, another Priyadarshan film (a brilliant one at that).
Cast: Mohanlal, Keerthy Suresh, Pranav Mohanlal, Arjun, Manju Warrier, Suniel Shetty, Ashok Selvan, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Prabhu, Suhasini
(First appeared in Cinema Express)