Odiyan movie review: Mohanlal's transformed physique, Manju Warrier are USPs of a reasonably watchable mytho-fantasy
At its heart, Odiyan is perhaps intended as a metaphor for the beast within who could be unleashed for good or evil, depending on the human being it inhabits.
castMohanlal, Manju Warrier, Prakash Raj, Sana Althaf, Innocent, Siddique, Manoj Joshi, Nandhu, Naraina, Kailash, Santhosh Keezhattoor
directorV.A. Shrikumar Menon
Is he a congenital shape shifter or a master of disguise with the agility of a fleet-footed beast? Does he fight only in self-defence or is he a criminal messiah of evil? The answers take a while in coming in the new Mohanlal-Manju Warrier-starrer Odiyan, the tale of the last man from a tribe of the pre-electricity era in rural Kerala, said to transform into various animals and attack humans under the cover of night-time darkness.
When the film begins, an elderly Odiyan Manikyan (Mohanlal) returns to his village of Thenkkurussi after 15 years. Through a series of flashbacks that dominate the narrative, we learn of the reason for his departure under a cloud of suspicion following the deaths of two locals. We learn too of the triangular relationship between the poor hero, the mistress of the house he serves (Prabha played by Warrier) and the lustful Ravunni (Prakash Raj). Prabha has a sister (Sana Althaf) who is blind.
A considerable part of the first hour is spent in building up Manikyan's animalistic avatar in viewers' minds, and the initial sighting of him in this form is reasonably exciting as a result. He/it is not exactly a magnificent creature, but curiosity around precisely what he/it is and what he/it becomes, especially after we realise that Manikyan does not know the entire truth himself, is enough to sustain the film until that final well-executed clash with multiple opponents.
Audiences across the globe, including India, have bought into the tale of a nerdy kid bitten by a radioactive spider and metamorphosing into a webslinging superhero. We have embraced an interplanetary immigrant from Krypton with superhuman strength, the ability to fly and a penchant for wearing his underwear over a skin-tight jumpsuit. We have turned a bespectacled "boy who lived" and an evil wizard who split his soul to attain immortality into international literary and cinematic bestsellers. What Odiyan lacks is depth and detailing in contrast with these contemporary Western myths transposed on screen and with richly allegorical ancient religious mythology worldwide, including India's own.
At its heart, Odiyan is perhaps intended as a metaphor for the beast within who could be unleashed for good or evil, depending on the human being it inhabits. Through the medium of the antagonist's actions, it very obviously also is a comment on how myth and superstition can be exploited by ill-intentioned people. Via Manikyan, it is certainly a reminder of the power and reserves of strength that marginalised communities possess but rarely tap and are usually not even aware of. Harikrishnan's screenplay does not have the imagination required to further flesh out these angles which have the potential for immense emotional heft when set, as Odiyan is, against the backdrop of a romance across class divides. Besides, the manner in which black (specifically, Ravunni's complexion) is consistently interpreted as being symbolic of evil, is quite reprehensible. Contempt for dark skin is no doubt a real-world prejudice that could and should be portrayed in films — I am not objecting here to the prejudices of Odiyan's characters, but to the director's and writer's own problematic gaze on Ravunni.
It could be argued of course that all this is a needless intellectualisation of a film that is meant to be just a fun fantasy flick. Well, Odiyan comes across as wanting to be something beyond that. Besides, contrary to expectations raised by its basic concept, there is more story than stunts in the narrative, and that story needed to offer more than it does.
What sustains Odiyan through its nearly three hours running time is the folksy air it manages to build up from the start, the special effects during the few (too few) action scenes, Mohanlal's physical transformation to play the younger Manikyan — his styling, makeup and visible weight loss — and the pleasure, as always, of seeing Manju Warrier in a substantial role.
Lalettan himself occasionally, though not often enough, wades past the outward trappings of Odiyan Manikyan, past the stylised slow motion shots and close-ups designed for diehard, wolf-whistling fans, and looks inward for this performance, thus reminding us of the fine actor he is still capable of being. Prakash Raj has an imposing presence but overacts throughout.
Warrier, on the other hand, is uniformly good as the lonesome, long-suffering Prabha who has always known that her fate was written the moment she was born into a particular social class and often summons up the spirit to defy that written word.
Although Warrier is 18 years Mohanlal's junior, and the age difference is a glaring reminder of how commercial Indian cinema continues to believe that women of his age are not worthy of being romanced on screen, it comes as a relief that Prabha is not a passing aside in the storyline like the 'heroines' of his films usually are these days (cases in point: Velipadinte Pusthakam and Oppam).
Their on-screen chemistry may not be electric, but there is a comfortable equation there that is mined well in a song sequence featuring both their characters in the open countryside at night. Here in this picturesque, atmospheric scene, the lines between dreams and reality, what is and what might be, blur, such that it simultaneously conveys the joyfulness of a couple being all that they want to be to each other and the melancholic awareness of the hurdles in their path.
This passage, and that excellently choreographed fight to the finish between Manikyan and his enemies exemplify Odiyan's potential — a potential it has not lived up to. As things stand, it is neither extraordinary nor memorable, but it is engaging enough while it lasts.
Agent will release in cinemas on 24 December.
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