It's important to mention what one's expectations were before going into Lijo Jose Pellissery's new film Malaikottai Vaaliban (MV). Anyone familiar with LJP's entire filmography should know that one doesn't go into any of his works with the expectation of a conventional package. And I certainly didn't expect a traditional 'mass' entertainer from MV, despite Mohanlal being the face of it. However, I expected it to be an epic visual extravaganza and the frames were indeed pleasing to the eyes. But as someone who found even LJP's Double Barrel -- regarded as an abomination by many -- entertaining, to the point of watching multiple times, I found Malaikottai Vaaliban to be an excruciatingly tiresome and bland endeavour.
Malaikottai Vaaliban (MV) boasts, arguably, the most stunning images of all the recent Malayalam films. It opens with much promise, with a serene, stationary wide shot featuring donkeys and bells and a handler -- an image immediately evoking, for spaghetti western fans, the iconic films of Sergio Leone. The titular Vaaliban (Mohanlal) arrives soon, and in LJP's universe, it would require a different -- unconventional -- kind of build-up.
What, in a traditional Mohanlal-led mass movie, would be often conveyed through dialogues, LJP and co-writer P.S Rafeeque (Amen, Nayakan) deliver through a ballad that details their hero's extraordinary derring-do. Rafeeque's involvement is one of the reasons I got excited about MV because I regard Amen as one of the duo's most accomplished works. Interestingly, MV also finds space for what Rafeeque did in LJP's debut feature Nayakan -- the slightly superhuman touch in that Indrajith-Siddique starrer. And like that film, MV has a taste for the theatrical, in the form of masks, bright colours, and eccentric characters. But it's this latter quality that eventually proves to be a chink in its armour. MV is, simply put, a movie with the sensibility of an elaborate play.
I wouldn't have minded the 'theatrical' elements had there been a neat balance between those and the cinematic elements. To give a quick example, some of Akira Kurosawa's films, most notably Throne of Blood and Ran, incorporated facets of the kabuki that, when combined with immersively atmospheric visuals and sound, produced a surreal, one-of-a-kind experience. There's no denying that MV, too, has that unreal quality in several places -- makes sense in a story with a larger-than-life protagonist -- but the tonal inconsistencies often work against its favour. The occasional detour, say, a lukewarm romance between secondary characters, plays spoilsport. You begin to question its inclusion, but even when the reason is revealed in the film's climactic portions, you wonder whether LJP intended to make multiple movies through one.
There are stretches where MV delivers a high, like when it assumes the look and feel of a 70s Bollywood masala entertainer, most notably, Sholay -- when we get treated to a Mehbooba-style dance number. It's also entertaining when, briefly, it recalls certain moments in Double Barrel, like a European villainess trained in martial arts, or when you hear not only different Indian languages but also foreign ones.
Those who grew up on a steady diet of Mohanlal classics will find some of MV's images and themes reminiscent of those in Thenmavin Kombathu, Yodha, Guru, or even Abhimanyu. One piece of Prasanth Pillai's phenomenal score even recalls 'Mandaara Cheppundo' from Dasaratham, fitting when MV has characters later revealed to be adopted children.
One can also derive considerable joy from seeing LJP being a complete magician with his frames (shot by Madhu Neelakandan), some of which may or may not have employed miniatures and matte paintings -- or their possible emulation through CGI. These are assumptions, of course. A near-obsessive and self-indulgent quality marks numerous frames, which are bound to be picked apart by the 'brilliance' teams in Malayalam film groups. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but 'brilliant' shots alone do not make a movie. MV ends with the promise of a sequel. I have only one question: Why?
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Mohanlal, Hareesh Peradi, Sonalee Kulkarni
Rating: 2/5 stars
(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)