Malaikottai Vaaliban review: Mohanlal, Lijo film is visually rich but underwhelming
Malaikottai Vaaliban (Malayalam)(2 / 5)
Somewhere in Malaikottai Vaaliban, a Portuguese woman in a red lehenga fires cannons at a crowd baying for her blood. It’s an incongruous image for an audience used to watching macho heroes do the same in high octane action films. Mildly comic, definitely absurd, and a streak of craziness that defines much of Lijo Jose Pelisserry’s filmography.
Malaikottai Vaaliban is a comic book style adventure film featuring a picaresque hero and his exploits. Mohanlal plays this hero – a legendary pehlwan who can eat a cauldron of food in one go, and perform unbelievable feats. Set in a surreal desert village where people speak a mix of Malayalam and Tamil, Vaaliban’s arrival is announced by Chinnan (Manoj Moses), his brother-like sidekick, who loudly shouts out his achievements. But Vaaliban himself is asleep, his snores punctuating Chinnan’s words.
Madhu Neelakandan’s gorgeous frames make it impossible to tear your eyes away. There’s a painterly quality to the long wide shots, with a rich colour palette that accentuates the starkness of the landscape and contrasts it with the costumes of the characters. The background score adds to the magical atmosphere that Lijo is building. But this intriguing beginning never quite leads to anything and the screenplay eventually becomes a series of random episodes held together only by the arresting cinematography and occasional flashes of Lijo’s brilliance.
Malaikottai Vaaliban is divided into short chapters, and the episodic structure would have worked if we were more invested in the characters. Unfortunately, that never happens. Mohanlal would probably act his socks off even if he’s cast as a rock in a film, but the superstar is weighed down by the theatrical dialogues and superficial writing. This was probably deliberate, to evoke a sense of the time period and the crossover between comic book and film, but it doesn’t work.
Vaaliban is in bed with a princess. He tells her, “Tell me about the hero who lost his horse”, or something to that effect. The princess tells him about this hero, and then about a princess who fell in love with him, and then the hero finds the horse and he leaves. Of course, this story is about them. He’s the hero and she’s the princess. The scene looks utterly beautiful but leaves you cold. Rinse-repeat of similar sequences that give you snippets of information about Vaaliban’s virility, his origin, his power. But all of this doesn’t add to his characterisation or endear him to the audience. They’re simply Vaaliban trivia.
Hareesh Peradi is Vaaliban’s acharya a.k.a Dumbledore with a twist. The actor hams his way through, playing the role in exactly the same way he has played his stern-faced, stiff, bureaucratic characters. The women exist only to titillate, and are written as cloying, overly sexualised beings, barring the colonial memsaab in the lehenga. The lone trans character is mocked and then vilified.
In this hot mess, Danish Sait as the plotting Chamathakan is an interesting character. There’s a Mad Max energy to him. His face always in halves, half shaved, half burnt, Danish makes for a fun maniac. His Malayalam dubbing, however, is ridiculously bad. Still, all of these flaws could have been forgiven had the film come together otherwise.
The conflict shifts from an ego clash between two men to a grandiose rebellion against colonial rule, and then to something you’d find in a mega serial. It’s unconvincing, and worse, boring. The staging of these scenes is, of course, wonderful. A giant tent collapsing, a shower of ropes falling from the skies, a sea of yellow masks. A series of fascinating images rendered in slow motion. But in the end, the effect is underwhelming and exhausting.
I loved the frenzy of Jallikattu (2019) just as much as I loved the stillness of Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (2022). So, it isn’t about the slowness or even Lijo’s tendency to be self-indulgent. It is, quite disappointingly, the emptiness — not of the landscape but of the execution. Malaikottai Vaaliban promises a mountain, and delivers a mound.
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.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.