Mohanlal in Odiyan Review
Malayalam Cinema

“Odiyan” destroys a captivating subject to become an endless assault to senses…

If you have your roots in Kerala, India, chances are high that you have heard (or overheard from adults) about the myth of the Odiyan clan. The peculiar tribe of black magicians were said to be notorious for their nocturnal attacks and generally eerie presence in Kerala countryside. When director V. A. Shrikumar Menon announced Odiyan with Mohanlal in the titular role, the desire was to see our favourite actor transform into the mythical human that we learnt from our grandparents with trembling fingers. To set things straight, the subject contained oodles of organic suspense and it naturally called for fantasy elements given the rumoured superhuman abilities of odiyans. Penned by Harikrishnan, Odiyan turns out an antithesis of everything – of the legendary tribe, of Mohanlal (finally) doing a credible film and also of our great expectations.

Narrated in needlessly convoluted and shabbily edited flashbacks, Odiyan gives you enough reasons to jar right from the very first act. For starters, the film runs close to three excruciating hours. Nevertheless, for all the admiration that we have for its subject matter, one tends to hunt for positive crumbs in what builds up to be an enormous chaos. First up, it is a delight to see Mohanlal play a dalit equivalent in rural Kerala whereas the baddie Ravunni Nair (Prakash Raj, disappointing) is the upper caste elite. Disreputable for his traditional job, Odiyan Manikyan works as an outdoor help at the home of aristocrats where Prabha (a pitch-perfect Manju Warrier) lives with her blind sister Meenu (Sana Althaf). The nature of Manikyan’s relationship with Prabha is not revealed for a long time and when it finally does, the film had already turned into an unfathomable cringe-fest. Coming back to caste bit, Odiyan attempts to not give Manikyan many flashy dialogues on virtues, equality and morals. The film, however, remains in its starkly commercial framework where there is a pair of wrong and oppressed leads, a cardboard villain and resultant battles that are older than Mount Ararat.

Lifted almost directly from Mohanlal’s own 2006 film Chandrolsavam, the immediate plot is about the unattractive antagonist wanting to marry his murappannu (female cousin) Prabha whereas she is oblivious of his intents. The primary leg in the story is Manikyan who functions as her family guard and latee comes the neighbourhood locals who act as vigilantes and caretakers of morality. Chandrolsavam, despite its cheesy dialogues and plastic demeanour, had some romantic chemistry and good music to mull over but Odiyan gets no such luck. Regarding the neighbourhood folks having autonomy over Manikyan’s immediate personal life, the film is unambiguously reminiscent of Mohanlal’s 2007 hit Naran, which was (again) high on adrenaline, somewhat watchable and also picturized in very similar backdrops. Director Menon also decides to throw a Pulimurugan déjà vu with a series of snazzily choreographed stunt sequences, filmed by the very same DOP (Shaji Kumar) and action coordinator (Peter Hein) who employ nearly the same techniques. For all the bizarre concoctions that Odiyan chooses to be, the inspired films themselves were mediocre at best.

With abrupt cuts and continuously appalling staging of scenes, one cannot stop noticing Menon’s amateur skills at directing a full-length feature. What startles all the more is what Odiyan is on the writing front. There’s not an iota of doubt while one ranks it amongst the most shoddily written mainstream Malayalam films in the present decade and this is no reference to the hype around it. Writer Harikrishnan employs every cliché possible giving the ghastliest of ‘90s Bollywood kitsch a run for their bucks. It is deeply worrying that actors of Mohanlal and Warrier’s calibre could greenlight the material on papers. Be it with inappropriately casteist and racist jibes, a needless political dig, normalized moral policing, female leads sans agency, an unempathetic portrayal of the specially-abled, symbolizing sex workers to rip a male character off his certificate of good conduct – the film is infuriating in countless ways. Odiyan feels so primitive that one wishes the makers remained in the pre-electricity era (which is a glaring factual glitch, again) so as to save us from future assault to senses.

Akin to the film, let me allow this review to form a confusing non-linear trajectory. So, after a series of allegations around certain mysterious deaths, Manikyan zooms off to Banaras where he could invest in some of the most hideous wigs and beards ever seen in the history of Malayalam cinema. His attire is overdone to levels of local fancy dress contests and the relentless third-party references to him are evocative of the unintentionally hilarious Mooppan from Pulimurugan. Unfortunately, it is the industry’s other stalwart Mammootty who decides to turn into one of the many Mooppan equivalents here. In Banaras, Manikyan accidentally saves an acquaintance (Sreejaya) whose untieable saree is certain to give advertising goals to Fevi Kwik. She drops a series of truth bombs and our man lands back in his hometown. I wondered what might have been his mode of transport. It is tough to imagine this deadly looking being queue up for a train ticket, I swear.

Back in Thenkurissi, Odiyan orchestrates his revenge plan against Ravunni Nair. (Meanwhile, I felt furious over the writer’s incapacity to – at least – come up with a creative name for this man who is the most generic cinema villain ever.) Manikyan’s plan is so flat-out predictable that you wouldn’t miss a single plot point even if you exit the auditorium for a cool thirty minutes. Menon, for the records, is a filmmaker with zilch knowledge of time, environment, era or even general awareness about how Kerala’s society evolved over the years. In Odiyan, in the same time frame, we encounter different degrees of development. The showy costumes, the markedly appalling production design and the natural locations that pointedly fail to bring in a much-needed air of mystique, Odiyan struggles to make sense visually. Shaji’s cinematography is crackling in places but notably indulgent at the most unfitting of places. For instance, the love song is gorgeously lit and coloured with some minimal and classy VFX in place but the whole episode shows up sans any coherence whatsoever.

Odiyan also gets its time game royally messed up. Certain characters refuse to age (Manoj Joshi as Odiyan Senior) and some over-ages (Mohanlal as Odiyan Manikyan) in the same time duration. The film takes a time leap of 15 years when Manikyan decides to move to Banaras and again certain crucial characters show amusing age incongruences. Prabha’s nephew who ought to be 15 in that very period is at most eight. Where did half of his lifetime vanish?

The saving grace – as is the case with numerous of his recent films – is Mohanlal himself who seems earnest to the hilt. We will also sense an air of delusion where it is clear that the actor believes in the bizarrely unoriginal film that Odiyan is. It left me dumbfounded for a fact that he is the same actor who gave us classics namely, Sadayam, Thoovanathumbikal, Vanaprastham, Guru, Nadodikattu and Thazhvaram among three dozen others. One that looks like a definitive case of a smartly pitched project, one cannot find fault in Menon’s confidence. He is an ad-man, after all. I could only blame Mohanlal for this monumental fall from grace. What must have gone wrong for this insanely talented actor? Wrong confidantes, terrible advisors or general misapprehension of what contemporary cinema is? Wish Mohanlal (‘Lalettan’ to a generation of Malayalam film lovers) introspects before it’s too late.

Rating: ★ 1/2 (1.5 out of 5)

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