Three weeks before Bollywood biggies Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Shivaay release on the same day, Mollywood is dealing with its own Clash of the Titans. The Mohanlal-starrer Pulimurugan comes to theatres on the same weekend as Thoppil Joppan featuring Mammootty, and fans of both Ms are vying with each other to make their respective idol’s film a hit.
This perhaps explains why, in a packed Gurgaon hall where I watched Pulimurugan, several rows were taken up by zealously cheering, committed Lalettan fans who clapped, yelled out appreciative remarks, gave repeated standing ovations through the film, whistled and early in the opening scenes screamed out their raucous support for a little kid on screen because they knew he would grow up to be good ol’ ’Ettan.
Fortunately, unlike many male fan packs I have witnessed in the past, they did not pass creepy comments about the women in the film.
Pulimurugan is similar to such adoring viewers – it is loud, it merits attention to the extent that it is entertaining, and it needs to be called out when it is crass (which, sadly, it often is).
Director Vysakh’s latest spiced-up venture comes to theatres shortly after Priyadarshan’s Oppam which starred Mohanlal as a blind man falsely accused of a crime. That film, despite its flaws, was credible and to the senses in comparison. It would take a hardcore Lalettan admirer to ignore his expansive frame here as he battles human-eating tigers in a forest in Kerala. When it's The Lord of Mollywood Vs The Lord of the Jungle, what does a star devotee care?
Pulimurugan, as the grown-up Murugan is known, is willing to sacrifice everything to protect his people, because they gave him shelter when he and his infant brother were orphaned. The root cause of his animosity towards the big cat is the killing of his father at the hands of one such beast. Now an adult, he is a legend of sorts among the local populace although the Forest Department is constantly on the lookout for him.
The title – derived from the hero’s nickname – literally means Big Cat Murugan / Wildcat Murugan / Leopard Murugan. There are many clashes in this film, all of them involving the hero, of course, though none with leopards: clashes between Pulimurugan and tigers, between him and the authorities, him and his beloved but short-tempered wife, and ultimately, between him and the human villains of the story.
The film is set almost entirely in jungles, thus giving cinematographer Shaji Kumar plenty of opportunities to rob us of our breath with the visuals he lays out on screen. I particularly loved the rock formations that were in evidence throughout.
Even more striking than those pillars of the wild, the green of the trees, the blue of the skies, the crystal clear waters and the ominous air of the forest though are those tigers that populate Pulimurugan. Stunt director Peter Hein (who has earlier worked on Bahubali, among other action blockbusters) joins forces with Kumar and Lalettan to deliver breathtakingly exciting shots of battles between the film’s hero and those mighty striped creatures (not computer-generated animals alone, a real tiger too was used, as I’ve gathered from reports). The SFX work on these extensive passages is also impressive. This is the main selling point of Pulimurugan.
Of course the use of a live animal in a film raises complex ethical questions that should ideally prompt a debate on the issue. While there is not enough space in this review to dwell on the matter, the fact too is that there is no space for complexity or nuance in Pulimurugan.
The hero kills tigers when they strike at humans, but there is no discussion in the film about the human-animal conflict – and no, Mister Vysakh, that passing sentence uttered by actor Lal’s character, about why he will not kill a cobra from which he just saved a friend, is not enough. And no again, “discussion” does not mean you should have made a documentary – serious commentary is possible even in a commercial fiction feature, unless your goals are strictly low-brow.
Perhaps this criticism amounts to expecting too much from a film in which there is a running joke about a man whose defining trait is that he peeps into bathrooms when women are bathing. The only thing that distinguishes Pulimurugan from Mammootty’s recent ode to misogyny, Kasaba, on this front is that the vulgarity here is authored by a character other than the leading man. It is worth mentioning though that the fellow in question (played by Suraj Venjaramood) is a dear friend of the protagonist and is positioned as a good guy.
As usual, Mohanlal’s character in Pulimurugan is married to a woman played by an actress young enough to be his daughter (Kamalini Mukherjee). To further assure audiences of his virility, he pats her butt at one point, there is innuendo galore involving him and another character bedding their wives, and for those of us who have the audacity to note that a stupendous actor has physically let himself go over the decades, there is a young, busty, midriff-flashing woman (Namitha) who leers at him and is open about her desire to mate with him.
All this in a film that has been generously awarded a U rating by the Censor Board.
So yeah, the SFX are good, the tiger fights are thrilling and oddly enough, even in a film where he is required to be OTT, Mohanlal manages to eke out moments of meaning. It is hard to resist those speaking eyes despite the cacophony that surrounds him.
But the combined strength of Lalettan, the tigers, the suspenseful action and the humour when it is not crude is not enough to drown out the loudness and crassness of Pulimurugan.
This one I guess is for the forgiving Mohanlal fan or action enthusiasts who are willing to close their eyes to a lack of refinement and sensitivity.