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Malaikottai Vaaliban: 10 Truths That May Hurt

February 20, 2024 17:16 IST
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Since nothing irritates Lijo Jose Pellissery more than a throwaway critical judgment, Sreehari Nair carefully presents his opinions about Malaikottai Vaaliban a good two weeks after he first saw the movie.


1. Lijo Jose Pellissery's Malaikottai Vaaliban is both a howl of ambition and an atrocity.

For all the comparisons to Amar Chitra Katha stories, Pellissery doesn't attempt to draw us in on a primitive level.

We are never caught up in the struggles of the lazy warrior played by Mohanlal, and so we are outside the movie from beginning to end.

2. If Malaikottai Vaaliban is 'ahead of its time,' then it must be said that Lijo has made something for those legions yet unborn.

I cannot conceive of any moviegoer who can be charmed by a motion picture whose greatest hustle, stylistically speaking, is placing someone at the bottom of a wide shot and having him talk very loudly and in hyperboles.

3. Madhu Neelakandan's camerawork operates decidedly against the pleasure principle.

Even in the artsiest of movies, there's joy in watching an actress' nose twitch unexpectedly or in watching the camera move in relation to the emotions and passions going on inside an actor.

Every time you catch a showing of Pather Panchali, that glorious sight of smoke billowing from a train hits you as something to get freshly drunk on.

On the other hand, the planned pleasures in Malaikottai Vaaliban have a frozen quality about them, and the movie offers no incidental pleasures either.

4. Pellissery believes that his audiences shouldn't pass the time without any effort, and that they should be willing to do some work in order to derive the bliss that he intends for them to derive.

But our man seems to have forgotten that audiences cannot be commanded to do the work, they can only be seduced into doing it.

Unfortunately, there's no seduction of the audience happening here.

5. In a way, the makers of Malaikottai Vaaliban should be thankful to Mohanlal fans.

The bad reputation that that militant set has acquired over the decades has meant that you can blame the average Mohanlal fan and his disproportionate expectations for the failure of a movie like this one.

As far as evasion strategies go, it's an estimable one, and I see it gaining further currency in the coming years.

6. More than a few have claimed to enjoy the movie purely for the seven dozen or so references strewn throughout it.

As a matter of personal taste, I thought those references were rather clumsily funneled in.

But on a larger level, it's sheer folly to think that a movie audience will prioritize 'a reference' over emotional engagement.

At the very best, one responds to something visceral or mysteriously moving on the screen, the meaning of which may be completed when one gets to know the specific hat-tip that powered it.

'Do not go to Vaaliban expecting the movie that you are expecting, but do go to it to spot the Kurosawa references that we have spotted': When apologists in their ivory towers do a better job of destroying a movie than the fan on the sidewalk.

7. If Pellissery has temporarily suspended his interest in camera choreography, this would be a good time to revive it.

In Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, you hardly missed the moving camera because the Mammootty conceit that loomed over the narrative was so wonderfully felt and worked out that it provided another layer of enjoyment.

Watching Malaikottai Vaaliban, I had the feeling that one painterly frame after another just doesn't do it.

I am not even sure if it qualifies as beautiful cinematography.

Lijo is responsible for raising the moving camera to a whole new level, from a show-offish technique to one that could be used to convey a sense of manic irony.

By contrast, the painterly frames in Malaikottai Vaaliban are damn humourless.

'Pellissery needs Gireesh Gangadharan like the ax needs the turkey,' a 2 am WhatsApp message to a friend.

8. If the makers had wished to put this movie in the same tradition as our fabled comic books, it may have helped them to actually go back and re-read one of those books.

Last I checked, a comic book works as a kinetic sequence of fluid transitions.

In the case of Vaaliban, however, Lijo and Madhu Neelakandan don't take the trouble to even vary the shots.

So you see a great Lavani dancer like Sonalee Kulkarni exhibiting her craft, and it's presented to you as an unbroken wide shot. Sacrilege of sacrileges!

What Pellissery has given us is an intellectual's version of a comic book movie.

9. It's been suggested that Vaaliban is filled with 'wacky' characters: A perfect example of an adjective sticking to the page and failing to have any resonance off it.

The characters in Vaaliban are not bound by a unifying vision, nor do their actions feel like they have any valid reason for existence other than producing some momentary dashes of colour.

'Wacky', therefore, is a euphemism; 'weird-for-weird-sake' is more like it.

This is what makes Mohanlal's superbly calibrated lead performance even more exemplary.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Mohanlal was, like Wordsworth and Whitman, a Poet of 10 Years (1987-1997, in Lal's case), he whips up a character that should, in the fullness of time, be regarded as one of his late period beauties.

As he did with Mammootty in Nanpakal, Lijo this time contemplates the inescapable sadness of Being Mohanlal, and the consummate actor hitches himself to that lightning rod (even when he's reveling and carousing, he keeps you aware of the lonely summit that the all-conquering warrior occupies).

This performance is proof that if Mohanlal's muses have to be engaged, he needs to work less with those orderly, mechanical professionals, and more with minds that are disposed to operate without safety nets.

10. Malaikottai Vaaliban has been widely described as a typical LJP film. I think it's a reading that LJP himself would spurn.

However, as with all his films, you cannot help but observe the observer.

In the search for new sensations, Malaikottai Vaaliban botches up so many basics of movie-making that it reinforces some very interesting facts about Lijo Jose Pellissery.

Though one of the most scrutinised and celebrated film-makers of our age, he continues to work defiantly outside the demand-and-supply system.

Also, unlike contemporary greats like Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran, Lijo doesn't pay any heed to such considerations as setting up shop.

He is an artist-savant, a happy itinerant in a world of stock performers and stock technicians, bad at chasing success, equally bad at defending misfires.

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