Traditionally, the protagonists of most Indian films come in different shades of white. They tend to be morally upright, the films almost always on the ‘right’ side of morality. The established template is “the good people live happily ever after”, the corollary being that the ‘bad people’ will meet a bad end — if they do not die by the end of the film, they will at least suffer. For decades, storytellers in India have stuck to this template and fed it to the conscience of the viewing public. This has resulted in countless films where the hero is the ‘good guy’, who does everything by the rules and lives happily in the end. The villain is the ‘bad guy’ who breaks rules and ends up in jail, or worse, gets killed.
Even so, there comes a few films now and then, tweaking the template to feature heroes in different shades of grey. Since the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and similar homegrown attempts, India has had an increased share of ‘anti-hero’ films. The narrative in these films is mostly such that the hero, who is good at heart, gets trapped in a bad world due to circumstances. The extent of the character’s grey shades will dictate the kind of punishment meted out in the climax. But punishment, indeed, there will be.
Recently, however, a Malayalam film smoothly walked away from these established conventions. Abhinav Sunder Nayak’s Mukundan Unni Associates, which hit the theatres in December last year and is now streaming on OTT, is a film that warns you right at the outset to keep your moral compass aside. It opens with a title card that says, “Human beings are mostly grey. Except in some cases. In some cases, they are just, black.” In the film, you find most of the characters are grey, one woman is mostly white, and the main protagonist is all black.
Mukundan Unni Associates is about a struggling lawyer in his 30s, Mukundan Unni, who finds it difficult to land even a single case. But that doesn’t stop him from dreaming big or having ambitious life goals for himself. A chance encounter with a fudging Mediclaim insurance racket in a hospital throws open a door for him. From there, how a struggling lawyer morphs into a ‘venomous’ kingpin of his own syndicate, building his own ecosystem — comprising ambulance drivers, fixing agents, police officials, doctors, insurance company managers, lawyers, and of course pliant patients and their relatives — is the rest of the story. You will get the emphasis on the word venomous if you have watched the film.
The title might have been derived from the name of the law firm the protagonist Mukundan Unni sets up in the film. But, in a way, it also refers to him and his partners in crime.
Two things set the film apart. First, the characterisation of the protagonist — Mukundan Unni played by Vineeth Srinivasan, as only he can. Just when you think the character has touched his highest point of ruthlessness, he takes it a step further. This is one film where the hero comes in many shades of black! Second, if you expect Mukundan to get punished like in the end of any typical Indian film, there is nothing. The “full black” hero and a few grey characters around him all live happily ever after.
Over the years, Malayalam cinema has made several films, such as Mohanlal’s Uyarangalil or Mammootty’s Vidheyan, which fell squarely under the ‘anti-hero’ genre. These films saw the main character play remorseless bad guys too, but they did not get to have the good ending that Mukundan Unni did.
By all standards, Mukundan Unni Associates is an audacious attempt to redefine the code of morality in Malayalam cinema. The seeds for this redefinition were sowed in some of the more recent films in Malayalam, where protagonists in shades of grey manage to go scot-free or just suffer unconventional punishments.
To start with, Drishyam (2015) comes to mind. As viewers, we root for Mohanlal’s George Kutty even after he commits a crime, out of compulsion nevertheless, and does everything to hide it. In the end, he does escape the long arm of the law. The mental agony he is shown to be going through, in the film’s 2021 sequel, is his only punishment. Even then, he continues to dodge the law and lives for another day. (Or should we say another sequel?)
Aarkkariyam (2021) is another interesting Malayalam film that deals with the morality question differently. The character of Ittyavira, played by Biju Menon, murders his son-in-law due to circumstances he thinks are fair. Till the end, he escapes the eye of the law and society. In a very interesting twist in the climax, Ittyavira inadvertently passes the moral burden of the crime to his new son-in-law and probably his daughter. Yet, we are given little reason to believe that the family did not proceed to live a content life.
Even more interesting in taking up the issue of morality and conscience is Kaanekkaane (2021), which deals with the vagaries of the minds of two individuals. At first, there is this character Allen — a young husband played by Tovino Thomas — who in a moment of vacillation ends up being party to the death of his wife. Then there is the elderly Paul, a fine Suraj Venjaramoodu, who wants to avenge the death of his daughter Sherin and goes after Allen, his son-in-law. Both the characters display a lack of conscience at different stages, and the movie deals with this interplay very interestingly. What is the punishment Allen gets for his grave act of omission and commission? He is shown as not being able to get over his guilt and suffering from mental trauma, which in turn affects his life with his second wife. But in an over-dramatic climax, all’s well that ends well.
It would seem that Malayalam cinema is now ready to shed the ‘morality’ baggage once and for all, shifting the template from idealism to shades of realism. Would the other industries too pick up this trend? If the recent Hindi film, An Action Hero starring Ayushmann Khurrana, is any indication, the answer could be yes. This is another film in which the protagonist, a famous action star, comes mostly in shades of dark grey and still manages to live happily ever after in the end. So, the moot question remains — does cinema follow society or otherwise?
This article was written for the News portal The News Minute and it appeared on the 1st March, 2023. You can check this and my other articles written for this portal here.
Amazingly well written, Anand! New cinematic perspectives, new ideologies and new faces too (by new, I meant, not the established stars)….all augurs well for Malayalam cinema! 👍
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Yes, Agree. Thanks a lot, Alex!