Odiyan begins in Varanasi. A woman is pushed into the Ganga river by accident and she's dragged through the waters, her saree entangled in a moving boat. Nobody notices what has happened but there's someone with a keen eye who comes to her rescue.
Mohanlal, with his matted hair, and heavily bearded face makes an entry worthy of a superhero (ably helped by Sam CS's thumping background music), setting up the anticipation for what's to come. Considering the last few releases of the superstar have been duds at the box-office, VA Shrikumar's Odiyan was supposed to be the film which would give back Mohanlal his mojo.
Certainly, the premise of the film holds a lot of promise - a shape-shifting legendary hero who is equal parts feared and ostracised by the society he lives in. The narrative alternates between the present and an unspecified period of time when there was no electrification in Thenkurisi, the village where Odiyan (Mohanlal) lives. The scenes shift from Odiyan's childhood, his youth, and middle-age, weaving a story of love, lust, and myth.
The elements should have made for a heady cocktail but Odiyan falls disappointingly short. The problem is the plot - it's terribly old and contrived, with characters who are either golden or glowering all the time. But we'll get to that later. As Odiyan, Mohanlal fills the screen with his presence. Each time he throws his black shawl around him or even when the camera is simply focused on his eyes, he brings a certain gravitas to the frame.
Despite his girth, the actor is agile (like he was in Pulimurugan) as he transforms into a fearsome beast during his nightly sojourns. In one of the songs, when he begins to hate what he does for a living, there's a poignant moment when he catches sight of his bull-shaped shadow. The surprise, fear, and eventual sadness on his face come within seconds, showing us once again why he remains the best in the industry.
But though the actor has given it his all, the script offers him too little to do - there are a few crowd pleasing "mass" moments and some stunning stunt sequences but unfortunately, it is the theatrics which take centerstage, pushing Mohanlal, the performer, to the background.
Prakash Raj plays Ravunni Nair, Prabha's (Manju Warrier) lusty mora cherukkan, a cardboard villain pitted against the formidable Odiyan. And what is his defining characteristic? His dark skin. One wonders if it wouldn't have made more sense for VA Shrikumar to write the character more convincingly rather than apply a thick layer of black make-up on the actor, making Prakash Raj look like he tumbled into a tub of tar on his way to the sets every day. And really, what inane politics it is to associate dark skin with evil in this day and age, even if the story is set in the past?
The non-linear narrative is annoying beyond a point, considering how little actually happens in the story. Each time someone recalls what Odiyan was like in the past, we're dragged along to witness Odiyan's childhood and youth. The reason for the shift in time becomes predictable, with characters (Innocent and Siddique function as these #Let'sRewind prompts) constantly taking walks and asking questions, and looking suitably awed by an Odiyan story. Perhaps the film would have worked better if Shrikumar had stuck to a well fleshed out flashback sequence instead of this jerky arrangement of scenes.
Ravunni wants to make Prabha (and her hapless, visually impaired sister Meenakshi, played by Sana Althaf) his own. And this desire fuels him for years and years and years and years - yep, you get the idea. Fatigue sets in quickly when you realise that the script is out of ideas. Manju looks lovely (especially in the songs) and she gets one scene when you see the fire in her eyes but there isn't much else she gets to do in the film. You also cannot help thinking that this story may have worked better if the actors involved had been much younger - none of the main cast is in their teens or early 20s and to make us genuinely buy their youthful romance is quite a tough ask.
Odiyan could have been the story of a shrinking tribe's fight for survival in the face of modernity - as Thenkurisi gets streetlights, what becomes of the man who frightens people in the darkness for a living? It could have been about the forbidden love between a man who is seen as an outcast and an upper caste woman - the beautifully shot 'Kondoram' offers only a glimpse of what could have been. The seeds of these storylines are there in the film, but for some inexplicable reason, scriptwriter Harikrishnan, known for his award winning work in Kutty Srank, has made the tired jealous mora cherukkan the anchor of his narrative. The film, therefore, unravels like a series of stunts. This worked well for Pulimurugan as the Man Vs Man-eater battle was making a come back after a long time and we were more forgiving of the poor writing, but in Odiyan, the novelty wears off quickly.
Most of Odiyan's scenes are shot in the dark, and though these don't feel suspenseful (we already know who will win..duhh), they are fun to watch nevertheless. The final sequence, especially, has been choreographed and captured impressively though the idea behind it is in itself weak. Elaborating on this may prove to be a spoiler, so one will have to be content with lauding Peter Hein and Shaji Kumar. Sam CS's background score is a big plus for Odiyan - despite how underwhelming the film itself is, you still feel goosebumps rise in your skin every time the 'Odiyan' track plays.
To stay afloat and make back the big bucks spent on its making, Odiyan will require some serious magic to change its fate at the box-office. Remember the boy who cried wolf? Well, the beast is here and it's missing its teeth.
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.