Fahadh Faasil is beautifully restrained in Malayankunju, a technically exceptional film that is, however, equal parts remarkable and questionable in its portrayal of caste.
Anil Kumar aka Anikuttan is a caste fool.
The first minutes of Malayankunju could trick a viewer into thinking that Anikuttan is just an eccentric lunatic or – if you think about it – a loner. However, the account gradually reveals that his bizarre behavior is rooted in much deeper reasons than the usual antisocial qualities. Anikuttan is seething with caste prejudice and, in part due to personal factors that will not be revealed in this review, a sense of victimhood common to dominant communities wherever and whenever their dominance is challenged, even marginally.
The saga unfolds against the backdrop of warnings of an impending natural disaster in the mountain village of Kerala where the central character lives. Anikuttan is a technician who repairs electronic devices and works from the house he shares with his mother. He’s a bubbly man. His temper is shown in his attitude towards his neighbors whom he harasses when their baby’s crying drives him to the wall. What low life, did you say? In fact, he is capable of going even lower than that.
While Anikuttan’s family and community display high levels of tolerance for his obnoxiousness, nature is less forgiving. If there’s one thing climate change and the ongoing pandemic should have taught us, it’s that Earth’s patience with humanity is running out. In MalayankunjuAnikuttan is the ultimate personification of our spoiled, brattish species.
The intertwining of a fanatic’s rage and nature’s fury defines this film. Who is the real victim here? On the one hand, there are the imaginary grievances of an oppressor against the very people he oppresses. On the other, the justified anger of a truly oppressed and exploited planet.
Directed by debutant Sajimon Prabhakar, Malayankunju is written by Mahesh Narayanan, veteran editor-turned-director of critically acclaimed blockbusters To take off, Goodbye and Malik. Mahesh is also Malayankunjuthe director of photography. His longtime collaborator Fahadh Faasil, leader of the new Malayalam new wave, plays Anikuttan. The film is produced by the legendary Fazil, who is Fahadh’s father.
Malayankunju marks AR Rahman’s return to Malayalam cinema after a prolonged hiatus. His music for this film is enjoyable, but not outstanding.
However MalayankunjuThe assessment of caste bias and its upper caste protagonist is uneven, some aspects of the film deserve unequivocal praise. Mahesh’s screenplay thoughtfully and intelligently deals with the preparation for the establishment of Anikuttan as a caste chauvinist, while quietly observing the way of life of the inhabitants of this region. Anikuttan may be mean, but he’s not portrayed as a villain. This makes him not an easy man to hate, making our response to him dependent on our own caste predispositions.
The trailer has already revealed that at one point Anikuttan is buried underground, but the pacing of the narrative so far is such that when disaster finally strikes, it’s a shock and surprise. This achievement is a testament to Sajimon’s directorial skills.
Anikuttan is beautifully played with restraint by Fahadh, who embodies his character’s constant internal turmoil and occasional weirdness without the effort showing. Through scenes in which Anikuttan is stuck in a flooded tunnel, where a lesser performer might have been overshadowed by the spectacle, he makes sure his character’s trauma dominates the situation. It’s just Fahadh being Fahadh, determined as always to stretch.
Most of the remaining cast in this story are not written as extensively as Anikuttan. It’s a limitation of the script, but the actors who play them – some are well-known stars – still make each role memorable. Anikuttan’s mother is the only one whom the writer has given definite shape, form and substance to in the screen time given to her. Actress Jaya Kurup maintains a delicate balance between the opposing forces of maternal love and her exasperation with her son, her worries for him, and her affection for those he outright rejects.
Malayankunju journey into his portrayal of caste with the exploration of Anikuttan’s relationships with his sister (Rajisha Vijayan) and father (Jaffer Idukki). Unlike Ratheena’s exceptional Puzhu which made no apologies for its prejudiced protagonist played by the great Mammootty, Malayankunju gives Anikuttan an out. If a personal ordeal causes you to turn against a community, that doesn’t mean – as people tend to say, while whitewashing real-world fundamentalism – that “it’s not really such a bad guy he ain’t Actually casteist/communitarian/racist/homophobic/misogynist/etc”. It just means it always has been; the ordeal stoked his confirmation bias and caused him to reveal his true colors. MalayankunjuThe position of in this matter is not stated in black and white, it is implicit.
I also couldn’t help but think that redemption was too easy for Anikuttan. That’s not to say that life always punishes off-screen caste merchants. Obviously not. But throughout this film, individuals with genuine grievances against Anikuttan seem overly concerned about his goodwill and forgive him more readily than is realistic. If they were all dependent or his closest blood relatives, it might have been understandable and believable, but they are not.
(Minor spoiler ahead) Interestingly, the cries of a baby who once infuriated Anikuttan due to his different mindset eventually become his motivation to stay alive, his compass during a disaster, his beacon in the dark. Symbolically, it’s a glorious reversal of the savior complex that often plagues cinema about the equations between subjugated communities and those who historically subjugated them and/or still do. There is a savior in this film, but not the one we are used to. (Spoiler alert over)
On the technical side, Malayankunju is exceptional. It is amazing how successful the Malayalam film industry is with the tiny budgets on which most of its films are made. Mahesh Narayanan’s camerawork in the exterior scenes is as exquisite as one would expect from Malayalam cinema in general, but where Malayankunju stands out in its filming of underground scenes, production design (Jothish Shankar), editing (Arju Benn) and sound (Vishnu Govind, Sree Sankar) in this long passage. Each plays their part by enveloping Anikuttan in a womb-like space from which he must emerge to be reborn.
Malayankunju runs for a crisp, economical 114 minutes. The portrayal of caste in this survival thriller is both remarkable and questionable. That the film is a topic of conversation and worthy of debate is indisputable.
Rating: 3.25 (out of 5 stars)
Malayankunju is in theaters
Anna MM Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specializes in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other sociopolitical concerns. Twitter: @annammvetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial