Earlier this year, we had Venu's Carbon, a survival drama about a man who goes looking for buried treasure and ends up fighting for his life. In Ajoy Varma's Neerali, two men who're transporting a box of precious gems find themselves in a precarious position, their car on the verge of falling into a ravine.
The back stories of the characters in survival dramas are extremely important. Who are these people who are staring at the face of death? What choices have brought them to this position? Should we root for them to live; will we care if they die? If the film doesn't get this right, the plot doesn't quite take off, unless the methods they employ to live are so incredibly original.
Neerali, unfortunately, doesn't have either going for it. The film begins with a well-choreographed accident. A vehicle crashing through the jungle and coming to a halt, one heartbeat away from doom. But this exciting premise is wasted by poor writing that shows a serious lack of imagination.
Mohanlal plays Dr Sunny, a gemologist. The only other thing we know about him before he finds himself close to death is that he's popular with the ladies. Having young women salivate over ageing superstars in a bid to portray them as "dashing" is a pathetic tendency we see across film industries and Neerali follows the same pattern.
There are at least two colleagues hitting on Sunny, one of whom is Naina (Parvathi Nair), who has vague "psychological" problems. Although Naina is important to the plot, the director doesn't bother developing her character beyond giving her some fancy clothes and a silly song in Mongolia. Nadia, who plays Sunny's wife Mollykutty, is reduced to a petulant child. The actor has very little to do other than complain about her aches and pains - which is sad, considering the crackling chemistry the two of them shared in Nokkethadhoorathu Kannum Nattu.
Mohanlal himself ends up spouting "interesting" facts about history and life to his companion Veerappan (Suraj Venjaramoodu) while on their road trip. This is another "superstar" trap that many directors walk into, trying to make the hero sound "sophisticated" and resulting in making us wonder if he will ever talk like a normal human being. Though both the men in the car are immensely talented actors, the conversations they share almost never sound realistic. Mohanlal's styling too looks a bit off - is it the hair? Or are we yet to get used to his Odiyan makeover?
Both characters have pressing reasons to survive their ordeal. However, the staging of their backstories is so unconvincing, with much of it laboriously explained rather than shown, that they don't have any effect on our emotions though the background score (Stephen Devassy) tries desperately enough. And what happens to Dileesh Pothan and gang? The director seems to have dropped them into a ravine in the plot.
The most convincing portions of the film actually have to do with the animals. The cobra and particularly the monkey. Perhaps because neither of them can speak and bore us with life lessons? At any rate, the VFX work is quite impressive. We're told Sunny has vertigo but there aren't enough shots of him struggling with this as he tries to get out of the trapped car. While the camera pans to the danger below the car, it doesn't quite exploit this nugget of fact we're given. The camera doesn't make us see the problem from Sunny's eyes. This would have added more tension to the narrative but remains a missed opportunity.
Neerali tries to make us believe that this survival drama is real and not like in the movies - Sunny spells this out and we also have the score from Baahubali to remind us - but much as it tries, the film cannot get past the shallow writing. This octopus (that's what the title means and poor Nasser makes a cameo just to make sure we understand this) needed a lot more depth to survive.
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.