'Malik', directed by Mahesh Narayanan, is widely perceived to be based on the 2009 Beemapally police firing, and has been criticised by some for certain representations.

Fahadh Faasil as Suleiman in Malik film wearing a white shirt and sporting grey hair
Flix Mollywood Tuesday, July 20, 2021 - 16:33

The fantasy of violence, real or imagined, carried out by 'fanatical Muslims' in crisis events has always inspired mainstream filmmakers. It's a familiar trope that opens gates for patriotic or secular heroes to stage a timely rescue or revenge. Rarely do they question the complicity of the state that engages in the persecution of individuals, and the endless loop of violent and dehumanising consequences it generates. In that sense, and by way of excellence of craft and performances, Malik, directed by Mahesh Narayanan, widely perceived to be based on the 2009 Beemapally police firing, rests a notch above others. It squarely pins the blame on the state apparatus, which wants to finish off a small-time-don-turned-benevolent-patriarch who operates outside the law, while exposing the nexus of a double-dealing communal politician and an invisible corporate entity, who have teamed up to usurp the community's land.

In pre-release interviews, the director is seen referring to the movie as a political thriller and not historical fiction. So, why is it that the makers of Malik, a film woven around a victimised community leader (we see shades of Madani here) and the excesses of the carceral state, being pummelled by critics for inaccuracies in the narrative? One factor that inflamed many and instantly created a political controversy is the perception that it tried to whitewash the Left Front government, which was at the helm when the incident happened. The police firing, according to reports, happened between 2.30 pm and 3 pm on May 17, 2009. It is the second-largest police shooting in Kerala after 1957 and resulted in the death of six fishermen, including a 16-year-old boy. Another 52 were injured.

The characterisation of the local legislator as a shady wheeler-dealer and insinuated as belonging to a political party identical to the Muslim League, was also seen as a ploy to shift the blame. In the film’s non-linear narration, the chronology of some events appears muddled. The 2004 tsunami seems to be the only faithful reference point but it’s difficult to pinpoint the year in which the police firing and retaliatory violence take place. Congress leaders have alleged that it was the 'political slavery' of Mahesh Narayanan, that made him adopt a dishonest stance. The critics from the Congress, however, did not take into consideration the fact that the inquiry report by a judicial commission headed by Justice Ramakrishnan, was not tabled in the Assembly when the UDF assumed power. The mosque in the film has been given the name Ramadapally, but bears a strong architectural resemblance to Beemapally, weakening the argument by the makers that the film has nothing to do with the real incident.

While writers and filmmakers are free to weave fact and fiction in their narratives, a convenient project in which footnotes are dispensable, it runs an inherent risk: readers and viewers often tend to conflate the two. A mere denial that any resemblances are coincidental may not be enough to assuage their feelings, especially in an incident where many lost their lives. Viewers seldom research a story perceived as based on real events, and are likely to assume that it's based on facts, finding comfort in the notion that any deviation is for the sake of artistic freedom. An ethical line needs to be drawn somewhere when you borrow liberally from real life to make your premise look realistic.

"Malik does not fall in the historical genre and the director does not seem to have made such a claim. It has adapted material from real events with several fabrications but it might not be right to accuse the makers of falsifying history," says Sebastian Joseph, General Secretary of Kerala History Congress, and an academician who specialises in film history. But showcasing the community as prone to organised crime and acts of terror by linking it to the police firing when there is little evidence, is problematic, feels Sebastian.

After the riots, sensational reports of trucks laden with arms and the use of rocket launchers created an impression that deadly weapons had found their way to the coastal hamlet. A few days after the incident, a forensic team recovered Neogel-90 explosives from the area, giving credence to the theory and justification for the police firing, which was unauthorised. The Central Bureau of Investigation which probed the source of explosives filed a closure report four years later saying no links could be established between the riots and explosives. They also failed to establish how it reached the area. In 2010, Jacob Punnoose, the Director General of Police, Kerala cited an official intelligence report which said the Muslims in the region have ‘inter-state connections and support of anti-national forces operating from across the border’.

Reny Ayline, an activist who had visited Beemapally as part of a fact-finding team for the National Council of Human Rights Organisation (NCHRO) soon after the firing, feels bringing in the terror angle was the most distressing element in the film. "We keep hearing about wars waged to ensure peace in countries like Afghanistan. Films like Malik do the same. They keep on demonising the Muslims, portraying them as people prone to crime and terrorism," says Ayline. It's true that the film is vocal in blaming the state for the violence, he says. "What's the use when someone mouths expletives at you for hours and in the end say they didn’t mean to insult and the target was someone else?" asks Ayline, who feels the movie, is not different from the ones by directors like Shaji Kailas.

Watch: Trailer of 'Malik'

A senior official of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, now retired, says he could not recollect an instance when anyone from Beemapally area was arrested for smuggling. "Fisherfolk may have occasionally brought in goods they collected from vessels journeying from Gulf region or Singapore via Sri Lanka. But the shops in Beemapally had customs and trade licenses and most of the merchandise was bought from air passengers or the cargo section after paying duty," he says. In the popular perception, however, it was a smuggler’s den. The amphibian vehicle driven into a beach when Suleiman (Fahadh) and others are chased by the Coast Guard and the makeshift submarine are pure figments of imagination. "Their boats were not huge and any goods they brought in were concealed under the fish. There was nothing ingenious about it,” he says.

The social relations of Latin Christians, who ventured out into the sea, and the Muslims, who were largely traders, have been faithfully depicted in the film, he says. Initially, their job was only landing the contraband and they had no direct links to smuggling ring leaders, some of whom were Hindus. Later, when they realised more money could be made by directly selling them, people from both communities joined hands. Gang rivalries or violence as portrayed was unheard of, he says.

Accuracy is a burden and never a priority for filmmakers who set out to make blockbusters. "A description by Jonathan Duncan featured Pazhassi Raja as a puny man with long hair and a thick beard. He rode an elephant and not a horse as shown in the film scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair. If the makers were adamant on it being accurate, they could have never imagined Mammootty as Pazhassi Raja," says Joseph. The film had its share of false inventions but it did not deviate from the historic plot but Kayamkulam Kochunni, which showed the character engaging in a fight with East India Company was blatant falsification of history, feels Joseph.

“I don’t think Malik as a film is competent enough to corrupt public memory. It is highly demanding and hard on the viewer. But a positive impact is that it would help reclaim lost history. All this hair-splitting will lead to historians and journalists probing it further,” says Joseph.

The film is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Binu Karunakaran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.

Also read: 'Malik' was the toughest film for me to write: Mahesh Narayanan to TNM

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