Mamangam movie review: Mammootty's much-needed call to peace falls victim to shallow writing
Malayalam megastar Mammootty plays a legendary warrior from Kerala in Mamangam, who turns his back on violence when he becomes convinced of its pointlessness.
castMammootty, Unni Mukundan, Achuthan, Prachi Tehlan, Kaniha, Maala Parvathi, Anu Sithara, Siddique, Tarun Arora, Iniya, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Manikandan Achari, Sudev Nair
languageMalayalam (Dubbed versions in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi have also been released. This is a review of the original Malayalam film.)
Art does not exist in a vacuum. The socio-political context in which it has been created lends it layers and meaning it may not have when viewed in isolation. So, as violence erupts in India's North-east following the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 in Parliament, beef-related lynchings no longer provoke public outrage on the scale witnessed when Mohammed Akhlaq was murdered in Dadri in 2015, and large sections of the citizenry this month have been cheering what they consider an extra-judicial killing by the Telangana police, a pacifist film assumes great significance. It becomes especially crucial when that film casts one of India's biggest stars as a character asking his people to give peace a chance.
This is why Mamangam: History of the Brave is impossible to ignore. Directed by M Padmakumar, the film features Malayalam megastar Mammootty as a legendary warrior from Kerala who turns his back on violence when he becomes convinced of its pointlessness.
Mammootty here plays Chandroth Valiya Panicker whose community is embroiled in a long-running blood feud with the ruling Saamoothiris aka Zamorins. In a bid to assassinate the incumbent monarch, these Kalari maestros have been targeting the extravagant Mamangan fair that takes place every 12 years on the banks of the Bharathappuzha river.
When the film opens, a voiceover explains the background to this enmity. The narrative then plunges into a bloody battle between Valiya Panicker's band of fighters and the Zamorin's forces at a Mamangam fair in the late 17th century. Cut to 24 years later when Chandroth Panicker (Unni Mukundan) informs his family that the Goddess appeared to him and instructed him to attend the upcoming Mamangam. His wife (Anu Sithara) and mother (Maala Parvathi) are just recovering from the shock when, much to their dismay, his adolescent nephew Chanthunni (Achuthan) announces that he too has been similarly guided by the Devi.
As the two young men journey towards their fate, on a parallel track the Zamorin's representative (played by Siddique) is shown investigating the mysterious disappearance of one of the king's agents from the abode of the courtesan Unnimaaya (Prachi Tehlan).
The link between the two threads is Valiya Panicker.
This is a story with immense potential. As north Indian cinema increasingly celebrates violence and cashes in on the hyper-nationalism dominating the public discourse, it reflects well on Malayalam cinema that it has not followed suit. Mamangam chooses to defy the bloodlust of the off-screen mob.
Thematic relevance, courage and sensitivity are not enough to hold up an entire film though when the writing is shallow and the storytelling style dull. These twin problem areas combined with action scenes and visual effects that are a mixed bag end up pulling down Mamangam.
It is all very well to show Valiya Panicker denouncing bloodshed, but the only way the messaging could have been effective is if we had been taken along on his inner travels. Sadly, the screenplay fails to satisfactorily explain how or why enlightenment struck him. One day he is driving swords into the Zamorin's soldiers, and the next time we see him he is questioning the purpose of this seemingly never-ending hatred that has claimed numerous lives.
Even the conversations sound stiff. There is incessant talk about the wombs that have borne children only to give them up to this bloodletting. The women of the hero's clan, in fact, speak of little but that. They though are better off than the courtesans who are given nothing much to do but gaze at the men with inexplicable expressions. In fact at one point in the narrative, as Valiya Panicker and Chanthunni chat while working together on a mural, Unnimaaya is present throughout their exchange but all she does is stare, then stare again, and then stare some more. I mean c'mon, Prachi Tehlan is pretty and has a curvaceous body showcased here in elegant minimal clothing, but considering that she serves little purpose in Mamangam beyond her visual appeal, the producers may as well have stuck her poster on one half of the screen during that scene instead of bothering to rope in a live human being for the role.
While on the subject of spectacle, the production design is one of the nicest technical aspects of this film. Both Unnimaaya's residence and the Mamangam festival are bathed in a warm glow, drawing on a rich palette dominated by a tasteful blend of gold, cream and reds. The costumes share this colour scheme. Whether they are authentic to the period is for historians to say, but they are certainly easy on the eye.
The camerawork in Mamangam though is surprisingly lacklustre, and unable to capture the famed natural beauty of Kerala. This is odd since cinematography is one of contemporary Malayalam cinema's great strengths.
The stunts, which should have been Mamangam's USP, are unevenly executed. While wide swathes of the action choreography are certainly impressive and had me on edge, the gravity-defying leaps taken by Valiya Panicker and Chanthunni lack fluidity, a fluidity that has been summoned up often enough in earlier depictions of Kalari on the Indian screen. When they fly, they look like images being manipulated on a computer rather than actual people.
The only characters in Mamangam that have some flesh are all men. It is unforgivable that gifted women like Anu Sithara have been cast in this film and wasted. Not that the men do much with the space they gave been given. Mammootty is the only actor who draws something out of his role, but given that the writing does not at all look within Valiya Panicker, there is only so much he can do. Still, it is important to note that in an avatar of his character where he is required to alter his body language and posture in favour of what is popularly considered effeminacy, he is measured and avoids caricature. Moreover, in an industry notorious for male stars who have not bothered to stay fit and maintain their physiques, he is the only one of his contemporaries who could possibly have suited this role.
Mamangam's release has been preceded by a series of controversies more dramatic than the film itself. Director M Padmakumar's last film Joseph is still memorable for its ruminative air and Joju George's career-defining performance. In Mamangam he is unable to fully exploit either his leading man's brilliance or the large budget for which this film has made news.
Still, Mamangam is hardly the worst end Mammootty could have asked for in a year that has been elevated by his smashing performances in Peranbu (Tamil) and Unda (Malayalam). At least he does not romance a woman young enough to be his daughter in Mamangam as he does in too many of his films, and despite the pale writing he manages to leave his mark on the role. Most important though, at a time when many Indian male superstars are playing along with a murderous public frenzy over community and country pervading contemporary India, it means a lot to watch Mammootty head in the opposite direction.
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