Malik movie review: It’s Fahadh Faasil vs Vinay Forrt in a grand, gripping saga on tricky communal ground

Malik, with its intricate even if occasionally faltering account of community relations and top-notch acting, is an excellent addition to Mahesh Narayanan's filmography

Anna MM Vetticad July 15, 2021 10:49:39 IST

4/5

“This is a work of fiction.” This disclaimer at the start of Malik might matter little in the face of the raging speculation in Kerala that this hugely anticipated Fahadh Faasil-Nimisha Sajayan starrer is based on what has come to be known as the Beemapally shooting of 2009 that left six people dead and a trail of distrust in its wake.

Director-writer-editor Mahesh Narayanan has nixed this assumption on the record, but a reading of the basic facts does suggest that Malik is his off-the-record interpretation of this embittering episode. Setting aside how the communities involved –Muslims and Christians – might react, here again, is an example of Indian cinema other than Bollywood confronting a government (in this case, the governing coalition of Kerala that was in power in 2009 too) while Bollywood currently cowers before the Centre.

The only safety net Malik secures for itself here is a slight change in dates –the shooting in the story is in 2004 when another party was in government in reality, but those who spot Beemapally in Malik are hardly likely to be thrown off by this.

In an India where films are getting shorter to accommodate falling attention spans, I am happy to report (and pleasantly surprised to note) that I sat through Malik’s 2 hours and 41 minutes without my interest ever waning.

That said, this is a challenging film, demanding as much from the viewer as it offers. Glancing away for a second could cost you, which is fair enough, but in one sphere the script could have done better: for a viewer who is particular about facts and who is aware that the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) was repealed almost two decades back, the scenes in which it is mentioned are confusing unless you have superhuman powers of concentration and a lawyer at hand.

Be that as it may, Malik is grand, but its grandeur is not soulless or over-stylised in the manner of that other recent larger-than-life Malayalam political thriller, Lucifer. It is star-studded, but its stars do not overwhelm the storytelling. Its leading man is a pan-India darling, yet each actor in the ensemble is allowed to hold their own and others get to spearhead the plot at different phases in the storyline.

The narrative begins with law-enforcement agencies taking an ageing Ahammadali Sulaiman (Fahadh Faasil) into custody while he is leaving Kerala on a Haj in 2018. This graying man who walks with measured steps is being picked up on an old terrorism charge. The arrest happens all these years later because this is when the police have got him outside his domain, Ramadapally. It has already been established by then that Ali Ikka is an overlord of sorts in this Muslim-dominated coastal town where he is revered as Malik (Master). The police are hoping for testimony from his estranged mother Jameela (Jalaja) to put him away for as long as possible.

Malik movie review Its Fahadh Faasil vs Vinay Forrt in a grand gripping saga on tricky communal ground

In Jameela’s voice we are taken back to the 1960s when she first arrived in the region, in an era when Christians and Muslims lived harmoniously. Through her flashback and later narrations by other characters, we learn of how Sulaiman and David Christudas (Vinay Forrt) became friends, their entry into the world of crime that at some stage caused Jameela to cut ties with her son, Sulaiman’s romance with David’s sister Roseline (Nimisha Sajayan), the manipulations by external forces and misunderstandings that tore the friends apart, and the machinations that led to the alleged rioting and police firing.

There are wheels within wheels in Ramadapally, where allies may well be enemies in sheep’s clothing, pawns will never guess how their actions might be supplemented by the main players in the game or even who those main players are, and gaining control over land overrides all else among some who claim to be on the community’s side.

Sulaiman rises amidst this muck to fight for the local Muslims against political apathy and vested political interests, thus acquiring the status of a quasi-chieftain of the area. Although he loses his friendship with David over time, there are other poor Christians who continue to trust him and turn to him for succour.

In Mahesh Narayanan’s vision, Sulaiman is a somewhat romanticised figure whose criminal activities are overshadowed by his commitment to his community’s welfare. He often appears benign but that façade camouflages a menacing core. That Malik presents him as an eternal nice guy, and somehow does not hold him accountable for his worst crimes including violence he himself unleashes (even when characters around him do), is a troubling facet of the plot. With David, what you see is what you get every step of the way: in his actions, his fears, his fury, his frustrations, his confusion, his shock when he realises he is being used and his ultimate helplessness.

Roseline is given space as a fiery youngster who rages at inequity. She is engaging then, less so as an older woman who in any case recedes into the background in the narrative. The limited platform for the character in her senior years is disappointing.

Malik movie review Its Fahadh Faasil vs Vinay Forrt in a grand gripping saga on tricky communal ground

Fahadh Faasil, Vinay Forrt and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from Malik

In an India where inter-marriages are being used to malign Muslims, it is good that Malik does not skirt the issue of religious conversion in a relationship between a Muslim man and a Christian woman. The hypocrisy of ‘love jihad’ campaigners is that their wives change their surnames, shift their homes, give their offspring the father’s and not the mother’s surname and, in the case of an inter-community alliance, often change their faith too, yet the same people object if a woman from their own community quits the religion of her birth on marrying a Muslim.

I won’t specify the path Roseline takes here in Malik, but it is important to comment on the film’s portrayal of the proprietorial attitude a husband and a brother display towards the children a woman bears. (Minor spoilers in this paragraph) A seemingly progressive man and his feisty wife in Malik both draw the line at decisions regarding their progeny, as she subsumes her spirit in the patriarchy intrinsic to the institution of marriage. Roseline’s unquestioning acceptance of Sulaiman’s desire to bring up their children as Muslim is out of character, as is her sheep-like acquiescence to a unilateral decision David takes in this context. Here too, Fahadh and the script give Sulaiman a veneer of niceness that manages to absolve him of the patriarchal mindset reflected in his desire, while David’s actions in this passage are projected as what they are: obnoxious. (Spoiler alert ends)

The universe of the film is Muslim and Christian. The point being made, that enemies and well-wishers can both come from within minority communities, is well made. Besides, there is a larger system – a network of government, police, bureaucracy and capitalist enterprise – holding the puppet strings in the film, and unequivocal accountability is placed on the doorstep of that system, though the facelessness of its top rung is frustrating.

The tendency while analysing a film of this nature is to liken it to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series. This tired comparison is, however, an injustice to the engrossing detail in the politicking portrayed in Malik, and the illustration it provides at every turn of how an unintended spark may set off a communal fire, one mindless misdeed may set off a life-long avalanche beyond the control of anyone involved.

Malik movie review Its Fahadh Faasil vs Vinay Forrt in a grand gripping saga on tricky communal ground

Sulaiman is not the protagonist of this story, the protagonist is the journey.

Fahadh Faasil as Sulaiman aces the moment-to-moment alterations in his demeanour, especially in scenes alone with the smuggler-turned-politician Abu (Dileesh Pothan). He gets tough competition here from Dileesh’s chameleonesque turn as a slimy neta.

Nimisha Sajayan is in fine form when Roseline is a student, but is done in by the confusing writing of her character after marriage. It is remarkable that she transforms herself so thoroughly as an elderly lady despite the disadvantage of youth she has over the rest of the cast in this department: she is 14 years younger than Fahadh. The script, sadly, does not give the lovely actor much to do as an ageing Roseline.

Hopefully, after Malik, Vinay Forrt (Premam, Kismath, Thamaasha) will join Fahadh and Nimisha as yet another pan-India household name from Malayalam cinema. As the combustible David who is too often ruled by circumstances, he is outstanding.

As Sanu John Varughese’s camera sweeps over the Arabian Sea, through the bylanes of Ramadapally, or earlier through the corridors of the older Sulaiman’s sprawling home and all the way to the airport in a single-shot opening scene, enveloped in Sushin Shyam’s haunting music, it is clear why Mahesh Narayanan was anxious for audiences to watch this epic tale on the big screen.

Mahesh’s stupendous Take-Off starring Parvathy remains my favourite of his three directorial ventures but Malik, with its intricate even if occasionally faltering account of community relations and top-notch acting is an excellent addition to his filmography.

Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)

 Malik is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

 

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