While the filmmakers hoped that Mohanlal's Malaikottai Vaaliban would set the box office on fire, what it became is a highly misunderstood movie.
The filmmakers always maintained a veil of secrecy over Malaikottai Vaaliban from the very beginning. They were extremely cautious about not overhyping the movie so much that it set some unrealistic expectations among the audiences. Well, they were not wrong.
Hype is like a double-edged sword that can be cut both ways. However, there was a serious judgmental error on the part of the filmmakers. Instead of striving to avoid setting the wrong expectations, they must have invested in setting the right expectations among the audiences.
In the aftermath of overwhelmingly negative reviews for Malaikottai Vaaliban, director Lijo Jose Pellissery rushed to give interviews to control the situation, which was clearly spiralling out of control. While the filmmakers hoped that it would set the box office on fire, what it became is a highly misunderstood movie.
It's because the filmmakers failed to present it to through proper channels that would have prepared the audiences and informed their experience of viewing Malaikottai Vaaliban.
Take, for example, Lijo's previous movie Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam. Starring Mammootty in the lead role, the film was a meditation on the universality of human suffering. This was not the film for the crowd that made Mammootty's Madhura Raja a blockbuster. It was meant for those who would appreciate a nuanced and sobering take on life and its countless forms of trappings.
The teaser and trailer of Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam set the right expectations. And it had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IIFK), sending out the correct signals to a discerning audience. It's safe to assume that it was watched by a crowd that had a much-evolved sense of cinema and garnered unanimous appreciation. The glowing reviews from the audience who watched the movie at the festival and the subsequent appreciation from the critics following its theatrical debut created the right conversation around the film. It may not have had the biggest box office opening in Mammotty's career, but it gradually gained momentum, captivating the audience's imagination over time.
The producers of Malaikottai Vaaliban, however, failed to follow the required due diligence. They believed that the film's grand set pieces, action sequences, and Mohanlal's amazing performance would be sufficient to meet the audience's expectations. That was an unreasonable assessment.
The producers must have understood that the crowd that was losing its sleep to watch a 6 AM show of Malaikottai Vaaliban was not going to appreciate an artsy movie. It was opening to the crowd that made Pulimurugan the biggest Malayalam hit in 2016. The first audience to Malaikottai Vaaliban was among those who rewarded Lucifer, making it one of the highest-earning movies in the history of Malayalam cinema in 2019. This audience was expecting a Vikram or KGF-type experience, and the filmmakers hoped they would respond to a highly artistic interpretation of childhood stories. Even Malaikottai Vaaliban, celebrated as a worker of miracles, can't pull off this stunt.
This audience anticipated a templated villain, making no sense but capable of making a lot of noise. However, Malaikottai Vaaliban offers a series of enemies who manifest the most unvirtuous and ugliest characteristics of human beings. For an audience expecting heroes and villains from a Lokesh Kanagaraj or a Prashanth Neel movie, the characters in Malaikottai Vaaliban may seem similar to those populating Shakespearean plays.
The same audiences might have responded to Malaikottai Vaaliban differently if the filmmakers had put in the right efforts to temper their expectations and set the right context for their viewing choice. Perhaps, they would have found enjoyment in the film with a more relaxed mindset, viewing it at their leisure. It's not surprising that the film faced severe backlash on social media, with many labelling it the "worst Malayalam movie ever."
To set the record straight, Malaikottai Vaaliban is, in fact, one of the most important movies in Indian cinema. It demonstrates how genres, visual styles, and storytelling approaches often considered alien to the taste of local audiences can be adapted to Indian sensibilities. One can't help but wonder why Lijo didn't consider submitting Malaikottai Vaaliban to festivals.
And the teasers and trailers surprisingly seem dry and undernourished compared to what the movie actually has to offer.
Make no mistake, Malaikottai Vaaliban is a superhero movie. However, it has been narrated with great honesty, integrity, and authenticity. It strives to be inventive in its efforts to create an original viewing experience and make the audience fall in love with true drama and cinema. The narrative weaves through various genres and thematic elements beautifully. It encompasses drama, tragedy, comedy, action, and some great visual moments. But, it's not Deadpool. It embodies the soul of Shakespearean drama and the spirit of a free-thinking filmmaker who would greatly benefit from a strong marketing team.