“....athanu police... athu aavanam police! (that's what police is... that's what police should aspire to be)”. Famous lines from the 2008 Mammootty-starrer Roudram. The scene is a confrontation between two police officers in the middle of the road—where the righteous and (moustache-twirling) heroic cop reminds the corrupt and cruel cop that a policeman's duty is to protect the life and belongings of a common man. Pure mass!
Cut to 2016. Another Mammootty-starrer—Kasaba. Another confrontation between two police officers—a man and a woman cop—at the police headquarters. The cocky male cop—a known womaniser—grabs the belt of the female cop and openly threatens her with rape. Tch, tch! The scene had the feminists up in arms against director Nithin Renji Panicker and the superstar.
The year's 2019. The film—Khalidh Rahman's Unda. Mammootty dons the police uniform for the umpteenth time in his career. The scene: Another confrontation between police officers, alright. But, with a twist. Sub-Inspector Manikandan C.P. (Mammootty) heads a team of eight Kerala Police officers on election duty at a remote village in Maoist-prone Bastar, Chhattisgarh. They 'attack' at night and Manikandan fails miserably to defend himself or the team. The respect is lost. The junior officers confront the senior officer later. An embarrassed Manikandan admits he messed up and if they want him to apologise to them all, he would do that too.
Narendran in Roudram. Rajan Zachariah in Kasaba. Manikandan in Unda. Three police officers as different as chalk and cheese. It is this ability to live a character that sets Mammootty apart from his more popular contemporaries. Manikandan could have been any other ageing cop you find around you, with no filmy, superhuman abilities. He is part of a Kerala Police unit that is sent to Bastar to assist the Indo-Tibetan Border Police during the elections. The unit branches off there and he leads a smaller team to one of the villages.
None of them have been in this part of the world earlier. Their struggles with the terrain, scarcities and the language are depicted beautifully, and, at times, hilariously. Director Rahman, who co-scripted the film with Harshad, ensures the humour and the endearing moments do not look forced. You will come across them in the most unlikely of places. Even in the midst of land mines and threat of a Maoist attack, the team treats it like an “excursion”. The audience gets a feel of Bastar's raw beauty, thanks to Sajith Purushan's brilliant cinematography and Prashant Pillai's lilting music.
The reverie is broken when the team gets a rude reality check from the ITBP. That's when they realise the danger they are in and how terribly unequipped they are to face it [Unda, in this context, means bullet in Malayalam. And the team's unending wait for it....].
Expectedly, panic sets in. Can Manikandan keep his flock together? Can he inspire his team to beat the odds? Or, will he fail yet again?
The build-up to the election day gives us a peek into the working of the political machinery, the hardships faced by the ITBP in the Maoist-affected areas, and the every day problems of policemen. The Indian Army is revered, more so now than ever. But people often forget that the men in khaki, too, sacrifice a lot for the well-being of the society. Unda also, boldly, highlights the caste divisions existing in the police force. These moments are made memorable in the film by a stellar supporting cast of Lukman Lukku as Biju, Shine Tom Chacko (Jojo), Arjun Ashokan (Gireesh), Gokulan (Gokul), Abhiram Pothuval (Unni Krishnan), and Omkar Das Manikpuri of Peepli Live fame (Kunal Chand).
Comparisons with Rajkummar Rao-starrer Newton (2017), are bound to creep in, with both the films revolving around elections in Maoist-affected areas, and how government servants are duty-bound to conduct fair and free elections. Whether they succeed or not, is a different matter. But the similarities end there. Though Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari) in Unda will remind you of Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) in Newton, a bit.
Mammootty has started 2019 on a strong note with Peranbu, Yatra and now, Unda. Die-hard fans will remember Madhura Raja, too.
Unda, to its credit, will leave you wondering—are the Maoists or Naxalites as great a threat as they are made out to be? A relevant thought, won't you say?
P.S.: There's a guaranteed goosebump moment in the film, but it's not Mammootty who gets the cheers and whistles!
Director: Khalidh Rahman
Cast: Mammootty, Ranjith, Arjun Ashokan, Shine Tom Chacko, Lukman Lukku, and others