Imagine a fascinating to trip to the woods, that you always dreamed of taking. A solo expedition where you encounter giant trees, wild animals and life in its very raw framework. This is new for a commoner whose forgettable national park visits showed him tigers and other exotic animals put in a better show than their abused counterparts in circus troupes. Thanks to the wildlife exotica it brings along, Vysakh’s heavily mounted action drama Pulimurugan is easily sold in the first 30 minutes. Oh, our superstar hero doesn’t even make his appearance by then.

Fictitious village Puliyoor is plagued by incessant wild tiger attacks. Villagers see a messiah in our protagonist Pulimurugan (Mohanlal) who is adept at hunting down members of this endangered species. To lace this chilling premise around, there ought to have a story and writer Udayakrishna has one that is old as hills. As one exclaims how this run-of-the-mill story got through the screenings, director Vysakh turns it around and lends Pulimurugan the right money-spinner elements. Voila, you have a winner in hand.

The best decision taken by the writer and Vysakh was to steer clear of overbearing narcissism seen in dime a dozen superstar vehicles. Our tiger-hunting lead hero is a simpleton at heart. One who is not known to blow his own trumpet, he lets his wife dominate him at home. Murugan repeats no one-liners.  Wait, he doesn’t have a defined sense of humour either. Embittered by a grief-ridden childhood, the vulnerable Murugan minds his own business. Of course, there are attempts to compare him to Lord Kartikeya which barely develop. Murugan, on his part, is steadfastly protective about his immediate family, friends and village folks – all for a reason. With a defined characterization as this and also roping in Mohanlal to play it, Vysakh scores a goal or two at the very outset.

Pulimurugan also has a family setup. There’s the leading lady (Kamalinee Mukherjee) who is fiery within ‘permissible’ limits (if you know what I mean!), ludicrous sidekicks with low-brow jokes, the compassionate Forest Department constable (Nandhu) and the rich village siren (Namitha) who letches at our buff hero like there’s no tomorrow. Ah, what harm in some unapologetic female gaze? There’s also a charming family number (sung by Yesudas and KS Chithra) that work like magic on big screen. Conventional much?

Pulimurugan’s story, however, hits a halt once the adult Murugan is introduced. Told through a non-linear narrative, we see sub-plots – some interesting, others pointless. The first half closes with a shocker of a twist that keeps you guessing on what lies ahead. As the pace gets better in the latter half, there’s a change in setting and overall mood of the film. Unexplained plot points from initial portions start to develop. Writing, though appreciable in parts, gets too busy employing trite clichés. For example, an MBA himself, Murugan’s younger brother is a gullible vegetable. For him, it takes for an illiterate Murugan’s recommendation to land himself up in a job of worth. For all his education, he tends to accept the most ridiculous propositions placed by his friends. In true Udayakrishna style, our antagonists are black as coal; who employ the most preposterous entourage to roam around with. Some spooky beyond belief (Mesthiri, played by Hareesh Peradi) and some straight out of Korean action dramas. Murugan, too, has seen only extremes – either soppy villagers or violent mafia kingpins. That latter based in a small-town operate smarter than Provenzano and the likes. Alright then!

Having said that, we got to hand it to Vysakh for making all of it believable. There are lengthy action sequences that could give shivers to the writer, let alone considering their practical execution. With sleek choreography by Peter Hein and a brilliant show put in by Mohanlal, these action sequences catapult Pulimurugan to unseen heights in Malayalam cinema. Be Murugan’s introduction or the crucial fight wherein a slain Manikuttan (Vinu Mohan) hangs on his shoulders – Mohanlal is beyond belief. The spine-chilling finale is the actor’s triumph and a clear testimony to his stardom, histrionics and long-standing career. Cinematography by Shaji Kumar is a delight and it is the rawness that catches us off guard. Having said that, the night portions are a wee bit underwhelming. Gopi Sundar’s music is very good but background score is too loud for good cinema halls. Dialogues are sharp and moving in parts. Editing should have been stricter in the first hour. Also adding to the run time is the opening credits with a never-ending ‘Thank You’ show reel. Thanks, but no thanks!

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As far as supporting performances go, most of them are from Udayakrishna’s own recyclable stock. Kamalinee Mukherjee is well cast, but the over-enthusiastic dubbing artiste fails her badly. Lal is a tried and test player for roles with similar texture and he doesn’t disappoint. Suraaj is entertaining, despite a tasteless character for this day and age. Jagapati Babu breathes fire as the main antagonist Daddy Girija. Kishore and Makarand Deshpande are wasted in listless roles. Vinu Mohan’s lad in distress act is rather natural. Namitha, Siddique, Bala, Nobi, MR Gopakumar and Nandhu enact their roles with sincerity. With a huge line up of male members in the cast, it is also interesting to observe how Malayalam film industry is the least homophobic in the country. The film has enough male bonding with generous display of physical affection that is nothing but characteristic to Kerala men.

To sum it up, Pulimurugan does reasonable justice to its event film tag although it breaks no new ground in terms of story and screenplay. Vysakh who ditches his fondness for colours makes sure that his viewers are thrilled to bits. Together with the inimitable Mohanlal, the director spins a masala potboiler that comfortably ups the bar for the genre.

Rating: ★★★