Malaikottai Vaaliban review: Even with a character like Mohanlal's Vaaliban, who has demigod-like strength and swaggers like he owns the Earth, Lijo Jose Pellissery resists playing to the gallery
Malaikottai Vaaliban story: Vaaliban, a vagabond warrior along with his mentor and son, goes around places waging battles to prove his supremacy. A duel, however, gives rise to an unlikely foe – the stark opposite of everything that the honourable Vaaliban is. What role does this conniving enemy play as Vaaliban’s journey takes him home, where his biggest challenge and adversary await?
Malaikottai Vaaliban review: “What you have seen so far is a lie. What you will see is the truth” — This line from Mohanlal and Lijo Jose Pellisserry’s latest period action-drama Malaikottai Vaaliban almost feels like it alludes to the fact that the filmmaker has drawn aspects from the larger-than-life, dream-like heroes of the silver screen such as Toshiro Mifune’s Ronin characters from Akira Kurosawa’s films, Clint Eastwood’s in Sergio Leone’s movies or even closer to home, that of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR, to construct a film that has his signature magical realism all over it.
Right from the first scene, Lijo transports the audience into a world - that isn't quite unlike the barren terrains of the Westerns or those set in feudal Japan, where heroes with no names roam across towns, with just their fame preceding them and honour justifying their nomadic cause.
The movie, based on Lijo’s story and scripted by PS Rafeeque, plays out as chapters set in the titular character’s journey from hamlet to town and finally home, one duel after another. Harking back to Vaaliban’s oft-repeated line about “what you are going to see...”, the filmmaker has structured the film in a way that each succeeding chapter is almost always better than the one before. It’s entertaining and most importantly, stays true to Lijo’s style of filmmaking – that values its artistic quality over the potential to set cash registers ringing at the box office.
Even with a character like Vaaliban, who has demigod-like strength and swaggers like he owns the Earth, and some cleverly-staged action sequences such as him balancing himself on a spear or manoeuvring a heavy piece of artillery, Lijo resists playing to the gallery. In fact, where he is most indulgent is in paying tribute to the masters – sometimes straying too much in scenes to showcase its visuals and layering. Every now and then, the director also infuses humour through symbols – all the while keeping it fun.
Even as Vaaliban stays undefeated, the film’s chapter-wise format also gives the director enough breathing space to build the arc. In every duel, there’s a bit of history about Mohanlal’s character thrown in, without revealing too much. This builds up nicely, such that even after a huge action sequence that has him taking on the Portuguese army (you expect that to be the high point), the makers pull off another brilliant chapter (and the best of it all) – sans any action and driven purely by emotion and deception.
Madhu Neelakandan’s cinematography is a vital element in this effort, which is replete with wide-angle shots and stunning imagery. The visuals also make this tribute, which is set in an unfamiliar terrain, convincing to the audience. There’s no need of any explanation of what Vaaliban is out to achieve or the challenges he faces; it’s all conveyed with striking ease through the frames – each a painting. And then there’s Prashanth Pillai’s music that has the grandeur of Ennio Marricone’s from the Spaghetti Westerns, interspersed with bamboo flutes and Japanese drums, and also has some 60s and 70s Bollywood beats thrown in, making for a stupendous soundtrack.
Mohanlal as Vaaliban has fun in the movie; he reflects the character’s strength and bravura, while also being playful and emotional during the crucial junctures. There’s a sense of calmness that pervades Vaaliban – almost as if he doesn’t know his own strength; but it also comes with a confidence – of fully being aware of what he is capable of. It’s a brilliant layer considering the ending of the film, which promises Vaaliban’s biggest battle yet.
Danish Sait puts on a great performance, even though his Malayalam does stick out like a sore thumb, as the venom-filled and scheming Chamantakan. He effectively personifies the snake at Vaaliban’s heel, relentlessly attacking him when he least expects it. The villains in Malaikottai Vaaliban come in different forms and guises – but none other than Danish’s Chamantakan seem convincing to truly bring the mammoth down, and that’s a credit to the actor’s performance. Hareesh Peradi as Vaaliban’s mentor is another great character that lets the actor showcase a different side to him. The supporting cast of Sonalee Kulkarni, Katha Nandi, Sanjana Chandran and Manoj Moses are also good in their roles. Some of the best scenes, which add depth to Vaaliban’s journey, actually feature the supporting cast. Be it Chinnan’s romance, Iyyanar’s inner conflicts or Rani’s unrequited love, these play a huge role in how the story is built around the action set pieces.
The film’s art department deserves a special mention, for creating the sets that look massive in scale, despite the budget restrictions, and complement Lijo’s vision without compromising.
The major reason for the cult status of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was that it was one of the first Japanese movies that was widely watched by the western audience and had presented all the elements that appealed to them. In that way, Malaikottai Vaaliban - despite being a tribute - has the potential of being watched and appreciated by audiences across the world.
Malaikottai Vaaliban verdict: Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malaikottai Vaaliban is a movie made keeping in minds fans of cinema – and not that of a superstar. And it works wonders, with the ace filmmaker paying rich tributes to the masters. With action and enough entertainment to keep the audience of the commercial cinema hooked, this visually-rich Malayalam period drama is another great addition to Lijo’s filmography and presents a memorable character for Mohanlal, who is in top form.