The image that stayed with me after Malik drew to a close was of a young Suleiman selling perfume while exchanging glances with Roselyn who is trying to draw customers to her fish stand. It’s a tender, exquisite moment shared between two young people who are in contrast to each other but feel like they belong together. Fahadh’s Suleiman is a school dropout who is now smuggling goods; his father is dead and his mother cannot stand him; he’s Muslim. Nimisha’s Roselyn is the only person to go to college from their coastal village; her family is close-knit, and her brother David (Vinay Forrt) is Suleiman’s bestie; she’s Christian. But they come together despite the differences, setting the stage for a saga that unravels over decades.
Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik is a familiar story. A young boy’s rise in the world of crime to eventually become a godfather to the community that he protects, and the day his past catches up with him. The trajectory of the plot is similar to Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan. Here too, the hero protests the displacement of his people and fights for their land rights. He takes the law into his own hands when it suits him, but there is a price to pay for that, and an enemy he had never imagined.
But this is not to say that the two are the same films. Not at all. Mahesh’s Malik appears to be loosely based on the Beemapally riots of 2009, when the police indiscriminately opened fire on the residents and later claimed that it was done to control communal violence. However, the police version has been countered by human rights organisations that have said that there was no communal violence in Beemapally and that the excuse was planted. The film begins with the disclaimer that it is a fictional story, but there are too many common factors that connect it with Beemapally. Nayakan, on the other hand, was inspired by the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar, a Tamil don who rose from Dharavi in Mumbai.
Gangster stories have a certain universality, considering most underdog heroes on screen emerge from poverty and their actions are never black and white; it is this space that Malik too occupies, drawing comparisons with other iconic Indian films that have explored the same themes.
Set in Ramadapally (the fictional coastal village looks very believable) in Thiruvananthapuram, the film opens with an aged Suleiman preparing to go for Hajj. In that obviously Muslim household, his wife Roselyn walks around without a veil on her head. There is a lot going on as Suleiman prepares to leave, and Mahesh fills the house with people coming and going, building a strong sense of community. The camera takes us through the crowd, focusing for a second on this person and that, before landing on Suleiman’s calm, quiet face. Between the greeting and meeting, Suleiman also conducts business. As an elderly man, Fahadh walks with a slight stoop, his smile not quite as open as what we’ll see in the flashback. Amid the festivities, there is tension. Suleiman and Aboobacker (Dileesh Pothan), the former’s friend and now politician, are on the verge of a fallout and it has been long in the making.
Mahesh drops plot threads from the first sequence that he picks up later, making the viewers work with him to unravel the layered story. Suleiman is ready to give it all up and settle for a life of peace, but that’s easier said than done. Crime throws a long shadow, and we go back in time to join the dots and make the connections. Although the film traverses decades, beginning from the ‘60s to the new millennium, the events happening in the present are told over a matter of days. The storytelling choice underlines the fact that actions have consequences, and that the present is never free of the past. The plot examines the relationship between religion, politics, gender and individual ambitions. It’s a complicated mix, but Mahesh steers the screenplay expertly, without plunging the viewer into confusion.
Malik comes at a time when religious polarisation is a factor in nearly every major election fought in the country. Does it matter for ordinary people which gods are worshiped the most when their lives and livelihood are at stake? It may defy logic but the sense of identity and community that religion gives cannot be dismissed lightly. And that is why it has always been a card that the powerful have turned to when they wish to become puppeteers. Malik tells the story of two communities, one Muslim and another Christian, living in close proximity to each other (in one of the film’s best scenes, Suleiman tells his friend David that it appears that the statue of Jesus on the Christian part of the village, is welcoming the people of Ramadapally with his widespread arms) and how their lives – thus far intertwined due to their shared livelihood – scramble due to vested political interests.
Watch: Trailer of Malik
Mahesh carefully avoids mentioning which political party was in charge during the police firing in the film, but for the record it was the LDF government in the state during the Beemapally riots. There are other subtle hints to real life political and communal incidents too, but nothing direct. I understand why a lot has to be left unsaid in the current political climate, but a part of me was worried that this made the depiction lose balance (the bit about how guns come to Ramadapally, for example), and contribute to an Islamophobic narrative (though that is not the intention of the director).
The romance between Suleiman and Roselyn is at the heart of the film (‘Theerame’ is lovely, with Fahadh's melting eyes and Nimisha's sparkling smile in the backdrop of the stunning Minicoy island), and I had mixed feelings about it. While Nimisha plays the fierce Roselyn with a natural charm that makes the character immediately appealing, the role itself is written only in relation to Suleiman’s. He ‘magnanimously’ allows her to stay Christian after marriage but asks that their children be brought up Muslim. Her answer is simply a relieved embrace. It’s not an unrealistic depiction, but since Suleiman’s liberal attitude towards religion is borderline glorified in the film, I wonder why the spirited Roselyn had to capitulate so quickly. This decision is an important factor in the plot, and considering how often communities take ownership of women’s bodies (the ongoing noisy and false discourse around love jihad, for instance), I wish Mahesh had examined Roselyn’s views some more.
Despite the wonky wig that he wears in the ‘80s portion, Fahadh is endearing as an eager, young man who wants to bring change to his home. His transformation from a callow youth to a chilling killer (the lead up to this scene is brilliantly shot) and later a broken old man is entirely convincing. Nimisha, too, holds her own – there are two scenes in the film when she hears of the death of a loved one – in the first, she’s screaming, out of control, out of her mind. In the second, she’s heartbroken yet resigned. It’s the same actor, but she carries the weight on her shoulders differently.
The supporting cast of Joju George (playing Sub Collector Anwar), Dileesh, Vinay Forrt, Indrans, Sanal Aman, Parvathy Krishna and others also deliver convincing performances, and this makes us stay invested in the film all through its lengthy runtime of 2 hours and 40 minutes. Malik has been delayed several times and it is certainly a film that deserves the canvas of the big screen and a superior sound system that would have made Sushin Shyam’s background score even more effective in the ‘mass’ Suleiman moments. That was not to be, but it must be said that the film is well worth the wait. And leaves us ruminating long after the end credits have rolled by.
The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.