Unpacking casteism from within an upper caste perspective is a narrative that’s rare to come by, and director Ratheena, and her trio of writers (Harshad, Sharfu and Suhas), have pulled it off in what I’d call a terrific debut, even looking beyond how I didn’t like the final act of the film.

Heavy spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Measured pacing, and silent stretches fill this brooding character study. The physical and mental isolation of someone who commands immense social capital, is conveyed through an all-round great display of craft. Theni Eswar’s flat frames capture internal and external distance between characters. The fact that he’s gotten to capture Mammootty at his prime in two consecutive films (this and Peranbu), is special.

This film wouldn’t have been possible without the dexterity of Mammootty, who has delivered a performance that is nothing short of legendary. I’d say it’s relatively easy for a character like Kuttan to invite contempt from the audience, but to make him an engaging watch rests a lot on the actor living the role. There’s also the presence of a child’s perspective to make it all the more easier to detest him. But Ratheena uses Mammootty’s gaze to extremely sharp effects. His moments of silence resonate louder than his dialogues.

Kuttan’s past is breathing down on him, and the ambiguity of his profession adds to the enigma around the character. His easy access to forensics is a nudge enough to connect him to having served in the police service, but his weak physicality and mentions of industrial business do keep one guessing. Another engaging aspect is the poised revealing of Kuttan’s background. We aren’t given everything about him from the get-go, there’s a gradual peeling of his past and his social dealings. It’s great watching a film be this sure of its audience’s patience and respecting them for it.

Kuttan is also not a nuanced character – he’s being the worst possible person to anything and everything around him, from fellow humans to animals – but the performance makes him come across as a real person, a bonafide triumph of an actor. Similarly, the other characters are one-note on paper. Kuttappan is a saint, Bharathi is someone whose hand has to be held, etc – but the actors sell these flat characteristics with dignity.

Using the Thakshashan folktale as an allegory to the events of the story certainly adds to the film’s layers, but the blink-and-miss nature of this device, and unfamiliarity of the story, don’t add much to the experience of the film as a whole. I had to look up on the tale to understand it in context with the story, and I couldn’t quite care for it during the film.

But I also feel the film works even without the frame of the folktale. It still does — with absolute lucidity — unpack the Brahmin’s ability for othering, manipulation, disgust and self-victimisation. Now there are two tracks of othering running in parallel here – the one through caste hierarchy, and the one through religion. The former gets the larger focus, with a parallel narrative held by memorable supporting characters. The latter though, is supposed to spring a surprise toward the end, much in line with the analogy of the worm. While you’re thinking the suckerpunch or the final psychological blow to him is going to be delivered by the ones he’s other-ed through caste, it’s his sin of religious bigotry that bites him back. While it can be argued that his caste-based bigotry has cost him his own mental peace and a healthy relationship with his son, I’m still wondering about the writing choice of his religious bigotry marking his end.

I wish these tracks were given equal importance, avoiding the behaviour of a “twist”. In my head, a film where the effects of both – religion and caste-based bigotry – were running in parallel, where you’re wondering which of these two is going to finally make him answer, would’ve been more effective.

The ending we have currently gotten makes a sharp left turn from the carefully constructed story-world up until that point. The twist in the tale isn’t as embarassing as the dump of exposition through a flashback in the final few moments of the film. It felt as though the writers cheated their way to an ending. The darkness of the point being made, that the indocrinated fanatic will get his way no matter what, is suddenly overshadowed by this twist. Yes, the film does build up to it, leaving crumbs along the way, but the unravelling of this plot could’ve been a tad more tasteful, in line with how the narrative behaves up until that point.

But I’d still call the film’s messaging simplistic. It’s a story that attempts to unleash a lot of justified anger against a certain community. The point at which this tale ends, you’re also left wondering why there isn’t any sort of catharsis for anyone in the film. Bharathi and Kuttappan die. Ameer is done for. The only true survivor of the film is the son, who’s going back to a controlling Brahminical household. So Kuttan’s death isn’t changing the status quo for anyone. This got me thinking if the film might be a rumination on the futility of revenge.

For all its mutedness and its ultimate failing, the makers do deliver on one rousing moment before it gets to its disappointing final act. Kuttappan and Bharathi walking hand-in-hand out of her household is an image that’ll stay with me for long. It’s a small instance of rewriting an age-old narrative, and the impact of it on the film is as much as it was on Kuttan.

Ratheena and her trio of writers have delivered a gloriously messy package, and I’d still place it among my favourite film-watching experiences of the year. It’s a winner for being ambitious and brave enough to say what it wants to say, all the while being unbothered by conventional ways of saying the same. And, for Mammootty.


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