There is a lot of information to process in Malik. In some instances, we are shown things just for a brief period — enough to give us an idea of what’s happening — without needlessly stretching it. This is, after all, the creation of a master editor who is known to make editing decisions in the writing stage itself. And for a film that runs close to three hours, director Mahesh Narayanan employs crisp editing to keep things running smoothly. The film moves as fast as any of Christopher Nolan’s big epics. Every frame in Malik pulsates with nervous energy, even in its tranquil moments. We get a tangible sense of the turbulent history of its real-life inspirations, be it the characters or setting. It’s impossible to predict the timing of the jolts. An undercurrent of menace pervades the entire film.
Mahesh and cinematographer Sanu John Varghese (who recently made his directorial debut with the graceful satire, Aarkkariyam) establish the tone right from the skillfully executed single-take opening sequence at Sulaiman Malik’s (Fahadh Faasil) mansion and maintain the tumultuous mood through the splendidly cross-cut violence in its closing moments. There is a great sense of urgency established in these segments through meticulous staging that makes the distance between each character seem shorter, even though they are mentally apart.
A meeting is about to take place as the film opens. Family members and outsiders throng the place. It’s evocative of the wedding sequence in The Godfather, where Marlon Brando is listening to the troubles of each well-wisher. But Sulaiman is not in the midst of a wedding. He is about to go on a pilgrimage. It’s a special occasion, but one that’s rife with peril. Much like Vito Corleone, Sulaiman appears soft and vulnerable on the surface, but his words carry much power. The meeting doesn’t end well. There is an air of disquiet.
The first twenty minutes establish Sulaiman as someone both powerful and vulnerable. Someone describes him as a dangerous threat. He is wanted not only by law enforcement officials (multiple acts, including TADA, are mentioned) but also by those looking to eliminate him for the “greater good”. What made him such a despicable figure in the eyes of many? Mahesh uses the rest of the film’s runtime to unravel the truths. For this, he brings in yesteryear Malayalam star, Jalaja (of KG George’s Yavanika-fame), to essay Sulaiman’s mother. His reaction upon being told about her arrival at a particular place, I won’t say where, makes one say that iconic Star Wars line, “I sense a great disturbance in the force.” If I have to use a reference from Malayalam cinema to convey the mood of this situation, it would be the fractured father-son films starring Mohanlal and Thilakan. You know, the ones where the parent wishes they hadn’t spawned such a child?
Interestingly, Mahesh doesn’t rely solely on the mother to recount the economically narrated flashbacks. He also uses the perspective of another pivotal character, which I found to be quite refreshing. It’s better than lingering on just one voice. There is an image that Sulaiman has of himself, and there is everyone else’s image of him. Some believe he did some terrible things, while others don’t. Allies, potential allies, and foes flank him. It’s impossible to tell who is going to turn and when. Malik is an influential figure who has done so much for his people, but who are his true allies? Will they show up on time? The chaos makes him look like a sheep amongst wolves.
The flashbacks begin as a Godfather II-style gangster drama replete with smuggling, betrayal, and a brutal act of violence. That last event sets off a chain of distasteful events amidst two hitherto harmonious communities - Muslim and Christian - with far-reaching consequences. Yes, the names of the places are fictional, but there is no mistaking the real-world parallels, such as the infamous Beemapally police firing incident. At one point, Angamaly Diaries actor Appani Sarath makes a brief but notable appearance as a character named after an accused from the original case files. But Malik isn’t woven around a single incident.
One could also draw parallels to everything that has been happening in Lakshadweep lately. Malik is a film seething with rage, much of it directed at anyone taking advantage of the weakness in members of both communities to turn friends and brothers against each other. Even a natural disaster is included in a mudslinging exercise by an unsavoury character.
One of the strongest principal characters in the film is David (Vinay Forrt), who broke ties with Sulaiman long ago. You could say he is the ‘David’ to Sulaiman’s ‘Goliath’. His naivete and unpredictability brought to mind some memorable characters from Priyadarshan’s early gangster movies in Malayalam. (Speaking of, the overall time-hopping structure of Malik and age transitions are also reminiscent of the maverick filmmaker’s 1991 film, Advaitham, which also revolved around communal tension.) David is easily Vinay’s most memorable character since that Sub-Inspector he essayed in Kismath.
If I were to mention a minor shortcoming, it would be the half-convincing old age portions. Yes, Fahadh and Nimisha convey the maturity of their characters beautifully, but there were also moments where they looked like thirty-year-olds dressed up as middle-aged folk for a costume party. Also, as much as I liked some of the character arcs in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of their motivations were strong enough to warrant intense animosity towards Malik. Yes, he has done some terrible things, but there is the nagging feeling that the supporting characters are overreacting.
Maybe that’s the point. Can we see this film as a statement on unwarranted cancel culture? How everyone needs to think more than twice before making regrettable decisions that could backfire later? One of the film’s most impressive aspects is a Vadakkan Veeragadha-style intergenerational conflict that makes you question, once the end credits begin, whether Malik was the real hero of the story or someone else. There is a brilliant redemption arc you don’t see coming. The bittersweet ending carries much poignancy.
In terms of scale, Malik is the biggest Malayalam film since Lucifer. We don’t get to see something of this magnitude enough in Malayalam cinema these days. We got a lot of them in the 80s and 90s, but rarely today. I’ve heard that some significant portions had the help of CGI. So far, I have only spotted one instance. Everything else looked stunningly seamless. I don’t think one review can fit everything I want to say about Malik right now. I’m sure I’ll discover new things on repeat viewings. Yes, this is that kind of film.
Director: Mahesh Narayanan
Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan, Vinay Forrt, Joju George
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video