I have always been a strong believer that native proficiency in a language and understanding of the milieu would let a viewer sink deeper into a film. The local nuances, the cross-generational quirks, and the cultural references are sides of film writing that subtitles rarely do justice to. This is precisely where director Abrid Shine’s third directorial venture left me puzzled. The major chunk of Mahaveeryar is based in an undisclosed location. While the spoken language remains Malayalam throughout, the costumes – complete with turbans and veils – remind us of the Hindi heartlands. The music and dance are Rajasthani in flavor. The landscapes look nothing like Kerala or its adjoining states. In no time, I deciphered how I was in for a universal film that transcends boundaries to deliver a story that revels in its ambiguity and absurdity.
Now, Abrid Shine’s erstwhile films were staggeringly dissimilar. If 1983 was rooted in a certain earthy appeal, Action Hero Biju stunned us with the absence of a free-flowing storyline. With Mahaveeryar, the filmmaker hits another boundary. A multi-genre film that is an amusing fusion of dark humor, time travel, mythology, and courtroom drama, the Nivin Pauly-Asif Ali starrer contains the power to make you dive deep into its writer’s psyche.
Mahaveeryar kicks off in the fictitious kingdom of Manomaya ruled by Rudra Mahaveera Ugrasena Maharaja (Lal, who uses his thunderous voice to the fullest). He directs his efficient minister Veerabhadran (an intense Asif Ali) to hunt for a young girl as pristine as the basil plant. Whether she is another man’s wife or a single woman, the woman is destined to join the king’s harem which is notoriously overflowing with attractive women.
Cut to 2020, a young sage (Nivin Pauly, impressive as Swami Apoornnananthan) is spotted in the courtyard of a Hanuman Temple in rural Kerala. The temple’s deity goes missing from the Sanctorum and is found next to the mysterious bearded man. There are opinions galore and so are agendas by corrupt officers. Next up, we find every entity in the picture land up in a court of law presided by Veerendrakumar M.M. (Siddique, delivering the film’s strongest performance).
Once the court proceedings kick off – with Lalu Alex and Vijay Menon shining as the warring lawyers – the film’s ambiguity lessens and the excitement quotient skyrockets. At one point, Mahaveeryar oddly decides to merge the eras wherein the king (Lal) and his court arrive in what must be a contemporary version of the same appointed by a democratic government. In a bizarre paradox, they seek justice in the modern-day court of law. By balancing this unusual synthesis, Mahaveeryar takes off on a ride that is, legitimately, unseen on Malayalam screens to date.
Abrid Shine’s enthusiasm to highlight elements of social critique in M. Mukundan’s story is one of the film’s most conspicuous factors. Shine’s screenplay is peppered with subtle local humor and clever use of the English language. It is constructed with characters who exist principally to exhibit a characteristic of society. Individually, they are all people who would merit a mighty spin-off for themselves. As a unit, only a handful of them is marvelously used. The time travel element, interestingly, is not spread out in an organized or chronological fashion. Nor is it limited to mere visuals. For instance, at one point during the courtroom debates, one of the characters breaks into an ‘Arthashastra’ reference – baffling one and all – because the strange add-on makes sense vis-à-vis the context.
The prime issue I observed in Mahaveeryar is its tendency to forget its trajectories. While it is understandable that its message is multifaceted, the film’s decision to leave multiple sub-stories and characters unattended is irksome. If we address the primary story, the saga involving the king, the minister, and the beautiful flower girl Devayani (an extraordinary Shanvi Srivastava) gets a conclusive closure. Through it, the writer-director projects a hilarious assessment of India’s judicial system and the all-encompassing societal network. Both entities pretend to be mindful of Devayani’s needs. Eventually, the system eulogizes a structure where a woman must service the men around. In a broader context, the idea is to show the powerless succumbing to the whims of the powerful. If their gender gives Devayani’s poor father and the neighborhood singer a slight edge, the woman gets no say or respite in the entire ordeal that shrouds her modesty. This side of the plot is also timely, considering the ongoing global discussion around a woman’s agency over her own body.
Mahaveeryar is rich in quirky characters – a lot of whom would have belonged in cinema by Luis Bunuel or Yorgos Lanthimos. To cite an example, the man who pays his ex-wife alimony in coins would easily fit in The Lobster or Belle Du Jour. The track, although not a big part of the twin narratives, exists to fulfill a purpose. The same cannot be said about the gullible milkman (Sudheer Paravoor) or the temple trustee (Mallika Sukumaran in her elements) – whose chapters deserved a more responsible treatment. While the ambiguity surrounding the sage is understandable, several of the film’s intended messages go diluted in its attempt to shift gears to never return to where it took off.
Abrid Shine’s film is technically proficient. Ishaan Chhabra’s songs are among the most melodious you would listen to, this year. The cinematography (Selvaraj Chandru) oscillates excellently between past and present. The production design that masterfully blends different eras is winsome whereas the editor (Manoj) renders the time travel in the narrative appear seamless.
Mahaveeryar ends on an unsatisfying note although it is not exactly a cliffhanger. While the makers try to convey a lot through an edgy screenplay, the problem is with the genre that renders the narrative unduly talky. If the big reveal at the end (linked to Veerabhadran’s wife) is a welcome surprise, the illusion surrounding the titular character lowers the impact. All I could take home out of this decision was a line from the end credit song, “Everything is a mortal illusion’. For a moment or two, it all seemed to come together.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2