There are no stunts in the air, no long lines preaching a policeman’s duty. And when there is an attack, Mammootty does not brave every bullet and walk upfront like a superhero, he sits down weakened. In that sense, Unda, directed by Khalid Rahman, keeps the actor who's used to doing too many superhero roles in the past, rooted. And that is a much welcome relief.
Unda does not offer a lot in terms of surprises or thrills. It is a plain narrative of a few days in the lives of a few policemen going for election duty in a Maoist-affected area in Chhattisgarh. Mammootty as Mani sir leads the mostly-young bunch of men, including Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko), Gireesh (Arjun Ashokan) and Aji (Rony David). The men have their own issues – one is expecting a child that week, another is going through a divorce, a third is being ridiculed by others for coming from a tribal area, two others are not on talking terms. But their bigger problem now is not having enough ammunition (unda in Malayalam) to face a possible Maoist attack. The Indian Tibetan Border Police are surprised that they have come with so little preparation – lathi sticks and wooden shields and a few guns they don’t know to use – while the team tries to get reinforcement from Kerala.
Khalid and his co-writer Harshad have taken care to write lines that are about the realities the policemen face in an unknown land, expecting attacks they are not used to. In a moving scene, Mammootty tells the others that he has had 15 years of experience as a policeman but never had to chase a murderer or use a gun, and so when an attack happens at the camp, he too was shocked, like the rest of them. Should he apologise for that, he asks them. He doesn’t go overly emotional, it’s just a casual exchange that men in difficult times have and it is of course a known forte of Mammootty, conveying emotion through the most ordinary lines.
Mani sir could have been written as the man who charges first when there is a problem, beats up all the attackers single-handedly and cracks a few lines about the sincerity of policemen. And become a sad stereotype of the many such roles written for a superstar. But Khalid and Harshad write Mani as a regular guy who does his best in a bad situation, who takes a blow and falls at times, and who rises again to make the best use of what is available. The other characters too are no angels, and come with their own set of drawbacks – superiority complexes, egos, jealousy and so on. All the actors – Shine, Arjun, Rony and newer actors like Lukman and Abhiram Podhuval – do their parts so convincingly you don’t doubt for a moment they are anything but men with real problems, trapped in a situation that you wish they'd somehow get out of.
Directors Ranjith and Dileesh Pothan play their small roles as senior policemen well. Bollywood actors Bhagwan Tiwari and Omkar Das Manikpuri too play important roles, language not becoming a barrier for communication. However, women characters are hardly present on the screen except Mani sir’s wife in a couple of scenes and the tribal women passing by.
The movie also touches on the Maoist issue sensitively, but does not dwell deep into it.
However, despite all the efforts to create unique characters, it's still difficult to connect with them. Unda could be a story you hear with interest but not one for which you develop empathy. You don't feel the tension you are supposed to, you don't worry about the ammunition that just will not come. You simply watch a show that's neatly performed in front of you. While the writers have taken care not to over-dramatise the characters or the sequences, there is also very little to make us root for them.
There are no songs in Unda except when the end credits roll. But Prashant Pillai’s background music makes certain scenes a lot more powerful (a scene when Mammootty falls and all the others circle his attacker with their bullet-less guns is truly chilling). Those are, of course, very few, and even as the script and the characters stay real, there is not a lot in the film that appeals to you emotionally. You can watch it hassle free, and quietly appreciate the performances, but not take a lot back home to later remember the movie by.
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.