I feel exhausted. The two hours and 37 minutes I spent watching Malaikottai Vaaliban has left me drained; as if I have fought (and lost) a wrestling bout myself. But, in reality, the thought I am still wrestling with is: what happened to Lijo Jose Pellissery?
There is no doubt that Pellissery is one of the most technically sound and daring filmmakers in Indian cinema. In his Mohanlal-starrer Malaikottai Vaaliban too, one would find ample mind-blowing frames. But, at the end of the day, these cannot make up for a woeful script, soulless characters and excruciatingly boring narrative.
It is said that a film is born on the editing table. With Malaikottai Vaaliban, Pellissery decided to create a film that is purposefully made slow with criminally excessive use of slow-mos. Slow-motion shots are generally used to emphasise specific moments or actions, allowing the audience to appreciate the details that might be overlooked in real time. If properly used, a slow-motion shot can intensify emotions, create a sense of drama, and heighten the impact of a scene. Pellissery himself has exemplified how to effectively use slow-motion in many of his previous films. But, in Malaikottai Vaaliban, one would feel everything and everybody is in slow motion. The result is that even some of the beautifully choreographed stunt scenes in the film fail to make an impact on the audience.
Malaikottai Vaaliban is basically the story of a touring wrestler. The initial phase of the film gave the impression that Pellissery might be trying for an Indianised version of the western genre. However, as the story concludes, it morphs into an LJP version of an Indian TV soap opera.
A fit and physically transformed Mohanlal is believable on screen in his role as the wrestler. However, Pellissery fails to tap the swag and charm Mohanlal can bring in, in such a larger-than-life character. And, there is a total disconnect with the audience. A weak supporting cast and terribly unimaginative characters add to the mess that Malaikottai Vaaliban is. Danish Sait, as a local chieftain Chamathakan, whose ego is bruised by Valibaan, is arguably the most irritating character in the film. It seems Sait aimed for a portrayal reminiscent of the American supervillain Joker, but his exaggerated acting ends up as a comedic misstep on screen.
Italian actor Andrea Ravera, who plays the role of a Portuguese slave trader, comes in a close second to Sait in terms of delivering an irritating performance. Fortunately, Ravera has limited screen time. Harish Perady, as aashan (master of Vaaliban), initially delivers a decent performance, but, as the film unfolds, his character arc takes a nosedive. Marathi actress Sonalee Kulkarni makes her Malayalam debut with the film. But, her lip syncing, especially in the song sequences, goes for a toss.
P. S. Rafeeque, the writer of Pellissery's iconic film Amen, penned the script for Malaikottai Vaaliban too. The writer and the filmmaker fail to offer a proper background to any of the characters, including the protagonist. This results in a weak world-building, which, in turn, results in a total disconnect with the characters. Madhu Neelakandan does a great job with the visuals and angles that a film like this demands. However, the impact of his work is nullified by some uninspired editing.
The background score is outstanding in places, but none of the songs are particularly memorable, and some are irrelevant in the overall narrative.
Malaikottai Vaaliban had generated much excitement and anticipation as it was the first collaboration between Mohanlal and Pellissery, who have a cult following of their own. But it is unlikely that this film will satisfy either of the fans.
Pellissery has announced a second part to Malaikottai Vaaliban. An oft-repeated line in the film goes like this: “Whatever you have witnessed till now is a lie... what you are about to see is the truth”. One cannot but hope that this line holds true for Malaikottai Vaaliban too. That the Pellissery-Mohanlal film I endured today is all a lie, and the 'real' one is yet to come!
Film: Malaikottai Vaaliban
Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Mohanlal, Sonalee Kulkarni and others