Moothon movie review: Geethu Mohandas' Malayalam-Hindi bilingual shows us a Nivin Pauly we’ve never seen before
Even by the high standards of Malayalam cinema, Moothon is a film that stands out for its visceral emotional tapestry interwoven with action-thriller elements.
castNivin Pauly, Sobhita Dhulipala, Shashank Arora, Sanjana Dipu
In Geetu Mohandas’s second directorial feature Moothon (The Elder One), the oft-forgotten archipelago of Lakshadweep is a key setting. A Union Territory by administrative status, it is hardly ever brought into the national consciousness, its people and culture not usually finding expression in popular and commercial art. Never before brought to life on screen in a manner such as in the opening film this year at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival, the life that we see in Lakshadweep’s idyllic environs is a sharp contrast to the other key setting in the film — grimy, expressionist Mumbai.
In fact, the film itself is a relentless exhibition of contrasts, from ones that cut as deep as gender and religious identity, to more, let's say, frivolous ones, such as Malayalam movie star Nivin Pauly appearing in a role completely removed from all that has led to his stupendous success and popularity. Moothon is, hence, an intense, chaotic experience that ebbs and flows, much like the waves that wash the coasts of both Mumbai and Lakshadweep.
In an island of Lakshadweep, a teenager named Mulla yearns for an older brother who went missing years ago. Circumstances lead Mulla to Mumbai, where the teen ends up in Kamathipura, at the mercy of the ecosystem that thrives in Mumbai’s infamous red light district. Mulla’s journey plays out like a thriller with twists and turns, while also unfolding as an emotionally charged story of self-discovery.
The film finds itself on firmest ground amid the tranquility of Lakshadweep, with its characters speaking a tongue that’s Malayalam indeed, but a dialect to which the sound of mainland Kerala’s Malayalam seems a second cousin. It is here our characters are handed the first pages of their fate, the cards that are dealt to them, and the choices they are forced to make. Mulla’s eyes inform the gaze of a large part of the film. For a young soul, every hurdle might appear to be a gigantic tidal wave that could swallow one whole (once, even literally).
Mulla’s encounters with a sex worker Rosy (Sobhita Dhulipala), a dreaded gangster referred to simply as Bhai (Nivin Pauly), his erratic flunky Salim (Shashank Arora), and others in the squalor of Mumbai are not as transcendent as the Lakshadweep portions, but still manage to make an impact. This is a Mumbai that we may have seen in countless films before, but even in Moothon, it manages to hit at your gut at times, primarily because of Nivin Pauly. In fact, Mulla and Bhai, the two characters who are undergoing turmoil in the film, balance the film out as much as they propel it. Sobhita, Shashank Arora, and others are competent, but ultimately, their characters rarely rise above being stock side characters in that seedy Mumbai underbelly we are so familiar with.
*Spoiler alert ahead*
The most soul-scraping bits of Moothon are the ones that pertain to gender, sexuality, and the rules society can confine a person with, instead of letting every person come to terms with their own identity at their own time. The theme of contrasts becomes most stark when we compare Nivin’s character in the present and in the flashback portions in Lakshadweep. It mirrors the nature of the spaces he inhabits in those portions. His gentle, infectious smile in the flashback portions is more of the Nivin his fans and audiences are accustomed to, while his Hindi-speaking ‘Bhai’ in Mumbai portions is a gritty, rage-filled portrayal that is bound to solidify and expand his fan base. (The film has as much Hindi in it as Malayalam, depending on where a particular scene is set). This is easily one that will go down as one of Pauly’s seminal performances.
However, it is Sanjana Dipu’s Mulla who truly holds your attention throughout. A first-time actor, Dipu brings forth the wonder and confusion in a teen’s eyes, particularly one who is rudderless in life, aching for an anchor. Mulla’s story is sometimes reminiscent of Moonlight in feel, particularly when it reveals itself at its most complex.
*Spoiler alert ends*
In terms of a technical achievement, Moothon goes several steps ahead of Liar’s Dice for Geethu. If that film, far more literally about a journey than this one, had a languid feel to it, her second feature is a kinetic visual affair, with Rajeev Ravi capturing its two main locales with flair. Mohandas leaves much open to interpretation on the part of the viewer, her screenplay a throbbing, organic clutter that seems to shape and evolve itself as it goes along.
Dare I say it, Malayalam cinema has been churning out the best Indian movies for a while now, but even by those high standards, Moothon is a film that stands out for its visceral emotional tapestry interwoven with action-thriller elements. Like a life fraught with questions and travails, it is a ride that can get bumpy, but it is one you should go on, should you get the chance.
(Moothon was the opening film at the ongoing Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival)
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