The Mohanlal film, written by M T Vasudevan Nair, turns 30 this year
Last Updated: 05.14 PM, Jan 06, 2022
In recent years, there has been significant criticism of Malayalam films dating back to the 90s and 2000s. However, a few classics did manage to pop up on the odd occasion. These films were invariably P Padmarajan’s cult classics and M T Vasudevan Nair’s stories. Their combined works make up for some of the greatest films ever made in Malayalam from Padmarajan’s Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal (1986), Thoovanathumbikal (1988), Moonnam Pakkam (1988), to Nair’s Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989), Parinayam (1994), and Sadayam (1992). Most of these films were not commercial blockbusters but were regarded as ‘art-house’ or indie classics, or as the Malayalis love to refer to them as ‘awardu padam’ - which translates to award film.
M T Vasudevan Nair’s Sadayam bombed commercially, despite receiving rave reviews at film festivals. In fact, Nair won a National Award for his screenplay for the film. Over the years, the film has found a cult following, alluding to the fact that the number of streaming platforms has risen significantly over the last few years. But it begs the question of whether the film has withstood the test of time, especially in an era when the Malayalam film industry has reinvented itself in recent years with a plethora of critically-acclaimed films. To critically dissect the film, the direction of Sibi Malayil and Nair’s screenplay has to be closely examined. However, the film’s most crucial element is undoubtedly Mohanlal’s compelling performance as Sathyanathan, a man on death row for the murder of two young girls and two men.
Nair’s screenplay was ahead of its time in many ways, but there were a few minor drawbacks that shackled the overall narrative. Drawbacks that reeks of the early 90s template that played into several stereotypes. This is especially profound in the character Vijayan Nambiar (Mahesh), one of Sathyanathan’s victims. Vijayan is written as someone who is fashionable, enjoys western music, and has a relatively modern outlook towards life. On the face of it, this shouldn’t be problematic, but his proclivities are conveyed to the audience as vices. The narrative implies that he is Satan incarnate and that Sathyanathan’s actions may be justified to an extent. In reality, Vijayan is simply a coward who was unwilling to take responsibility for his ‘one-night stand’ with Jaya (Maathu). In hindsight, Sathyanathan’s motives may have been driven by jealousy to an extent. Unfortunately, Vijayan’s character lacks depth and actor Mahesh’s performance is underwhelming. He is a stereotypical one-dimensional character, which was the go-to trope for most filmmakers when envisioning their antagonist.
This is problematic in how this affects Mohanlal’s Sathyanathan arc. The flashback scenes offer little insight into his psyche, and there are enough hints to suggest that his mental health is far from ideal. This side to his character is never fully realised as he is pitted against an utterly unempathetic man like Vijayan. The viewers are inadvertently obliged to root for the mentally unstable Sathyanathan, who ends up murdering four people in cold blood. His reasons as to why he murdered the little girls and the two men, opens up moral and ethical debates that our society is simply ill-equipped of having, even after three decades since the film was released. While he killed the two men for ‘sins’ for inadvertently leading the love of his life, Jaya, to prostitution, and the murder of Jaya’s younger sisters was his deranged notion of saving them from sex trafficking at such a young age.
Sathyanathan’s actions are a brutal reminder that young women, from unfavourable backgrounds, are often subject to the worst of what humanity has to offer. The feeling of powerlessness drives him in his belief that the young girls will be safer in death than in the world of the living. It highlights the inadequacies in the system that is supposed to help the vulnerable. In fact, the story critiques several contemporary issues such as the taboo surrounding abortion, mental health, capital punishment, and the draconian judicial systems in place. Unfortunately, despite the drastic changes in the economic fabric of Indian societies, the aforementioned issues have not improved in the slightest even after 30 years. One might even argue that it has regressed to a certain degree.
Regardless of how the film will age in years to come, it will forever remain a thought-provoking character study. It is also one of those films where Mohanlal truly showcased his undeniable skill and craft. The supporting cast of Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, and Murali were almost at par with Mohanlal in terms of quality. Johnson’s eerie background score will be etched in the viewers’ memory. While Sibi Malayil is guilty of some truly questionable films such as Kaliveedu, he’s done a remarkable job with Sadayam, which will clearly remain his best film.