There is no reason to roll eyes, seeing the duration on the film certificate. All 170 minutes of the period film Kayamkulam Kochunni, based on a real-life thief of the 19th century, passes by pretty easily. It doesn’t drag, there are no slow pauses, no sleepy lectures. It is just that director Rosshan Andrrews had a long tale to tell, but he manages to keep you interested.
Introducing Nivin Pauly as Kayamkulam Kochunni, for instance, does not take long. The movie starts at a point that it would get to in the climax. There is an order to hang Kochunni, sealed and ready. When we first see Kochunni, he is inside a prison in chains, praying. Nivin turns one side of his face to the camera in the dark, but the outline is enough for fans to welcome him on the screen. Good move, Rosshan, it ensures that the first lines of the hero are not drowned in the cheering, hooting and throwing of paper bits.
As Kochunni walks towards the gallows, Rosshan quietly slips into the past, without you noticing it. A man is chased around by a few others, who call him a thief. The background sets in with this scene. The man is in tattered clothes, and the people chasing him are wearing traditional upper caste robes. A bunch of kids watch the man getting beaten for stealing some rice. Kochunni is among the kids, rushing with a new piece of cloth for his dad, who is stripped of his mundu and tied to a tree.
Right there, Rosshan sets the conditions of the times Kochunni grew up in. The law is in the hands of the upper caste, with some interventions from the British. The lower caste was not expected to read or write or have their own businesses. And the slightest of offences, such as taking rice to feed a poor family, will invite hundreds of lashes and other cruel punishments.
Kochunni, as an adult, turns a blind eye to all this, like most others, in the beginning. He thinks there is nothing he can do about it. But when he can, he goes out of the way. He is the first to dive into a well when a child belonging to a lower caste fell into it. Men of the upper caste rush in to close the well, which has been “turned impure because a chovvan (a lower caste male) had fallen”. But Kochunni saves him, fighting with a snake as he does.
The use of “chovvan” as a derogatory term comes at a time when a woman, protesting the Sabarimala verdict, ridiculed the chief minister using the same caste name, along with abuses. Rosshan might have planned the film a long time ago, but it comes out at a time there is a lot of talk about caste. The director, who is known for his extensive research before taking on a movie, has taken a lot of effort to recreate 19th century Kerala and shows, without compromise, the mindsets of people who thought themselves superior to others only because they were born into a certain family. The costumes, the horses, the neighbourhoods divided into those of the poor and the rich – are all details that are given a lot of care.
Nivin as Kochunni is timid at first. He has vowed to never steal like his dad. Perhaps to highlight his innocence, you see him smiling widely at several places. It looks terribly artificial, but it seems to have worked on Janaki, a lower-caste woman who falls in love with him because of the innocence on his face. Priya Anand’s character is introduced soon enough, but doesn’t last very long. The character is one you can easily write off. There is nothing outstanding to remember Janaki by. The rendition of her lines, dubbed, also stand out from the otherwise natural flow of the script, written by Bobby and Sanjay.
Something about Nivin's portrayal lacks conviction. But that is only when you try to introspect. On the screen, Nivin conveys Kochunni's story smoothly enough, with minimum expressions once he has a transformation from the innocent young man to Kayamkulam Kochunni. You don't think that this is the person who played the new age romantic in Thattathin Marayathu or Bangalore Days. He merges easily into the 19th century.
What doesn't merge so easily is Gopi Sunder's music. It stands out, effectively at times, when Kochunni finally transforms into the hero we have heard of, robbing the rich upper caste and giving it to the poor and exploited lower caste. But otherwise, it becomes all too much. When Kochunni climbs a tree to secretly learn Kalari taught by a respected master (Babu Antony, Mollywood’s martial arts expert), you hear a grand bit of music when men make their moves on the ground. Why, you wonder.
Nivin must have trained exhaustively to pick up the Kalari he uses in the film. There are some high jumps and stunts he deserves credit for, but then the ruthlessness he tries to put on his face is not convincing enough. It's just that he grew a moustache and chopped off his hair. Looking something like his saviour, Ithikkara Pakki, played by Mohanlal. For once, a superstar’s cameo does not involve taking the attention off the hero and putting it entirely on the star. Mohanlal plays the guide the way martial arts masters did in old Jackie Chan movies, training Kochunni in much similar ways. Even his limited screen-time is effective but not attention-seeking. He almost becomes an aide to the new hero that Kochunni has become. There are no huge lectures either. It is a huge relief to see that.
Quite a few actors do well despite their shorter roles, actors such as Manikandan. Director and occasional actor Jude Anthany Joseph seems to have a gift for comedy, as his short scene is made for laughs in between an otherwise serious movie. Sunny Wayne has a longer role as a policeman, and carries his lifelong jealousy for Kochunni beautifully on his face.
There are undoubtedly exaggerated stunts in the movie, following a rule that works only in cinema – being up in the air for a considerably long time. But that can be overlooked, given the large picture that Rosshan and crew took a lot of effort to create. Kayamkulam Kochunni works.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.