What does Kerala’s famous dance-performance art, Kathakali, have to do with the lives of people in Cuddalore? Nothing at all, unless you happened to be Vishal and Pandiraj, the producer and director, respectively, of the Pongal release Kathakali.
Starring Vishal, Catherine Tresa, and Karunas, Kathakali is the story of a young man, a gangland killing, multiple possible killers, and a police officer who may not be the best person to investigate the murder. It’s supposed to be a mass, masala thriller. A little tepid at the start, the film quickly gains pace.
Masala films work by bigging up the hero, making him invincible and flawless. The hero can do no wrong. His moral compass has been set due north, and cemented there. He is the savior of mankind, the conqueror of evil, deliverer of the poor, and the upholder of family sentiment. In between all these, he must stop to smell the flowers, drink with his friends, make love to the heroine, and sing a song or five.
A mystery thriller, on the other hand, needs to be pared down. A murder and a murderer on the loose. There’s room for the chase, the resolution, and little else.
Kathakali tries to marry these two incompatible genres.
Amudavel (Vishal), a boy from Cuddalore, the son of a local fisherman (and later small businessman) returns from the US to marry his girlfriend, Meenu Kutty (Catherine Tresa). It’s a time when Thamba, the leader of the fishing community, and a local mafia leader, is at the peak of his reign.
Through flashbacks, we see Thamba’s rise. The Cuddalore fishermen and the Chennai fishermen had been at loggerheads for a while, over contested waters. We watch Thamba snub a powerful businessman by kidnapping his daughter and marrying her to her lover. A local politician is thwarted by Thamba, and loses his MLA seat, and therefore his power. Thamba’s enemies get chopped down, their families destroyed.
We see that Thamba may have hurt Amudavel and his family at some point in the past. At the end of the sequence, Amudavel resolves to seek vengeance.
But then, instead of embarking on revenge, Amudavel goes off to Madras. Here, using time-tested Tamil cinema methods, he ‘gets’ Meena Kutty to fall in love with him. What methods? Well, there’s the classic stalking, the mild harassment using mobile phones and prank calls, the sprinkling of misogyny. Soon, the girl’s feelings have grown tender, and she’s ready to tie the knot. First though, a duet. Let’s all be modern and contemporary and play hip-hop while riding bikes on the streets of a busy city.
And so it’s all set for a massive wedding with friends and family wishing the couple well.
Then, Thamba dies.
Who dun it?
Everybody’s a suspect. Now we can get into the movie proper, and the suspense is ratcheted up a few notches. The film gains speed.
Did the hero, Amudhavel, kill Thamba? Can the hero really ever come down from his pedestal and commit a cold-blooded crime? After all, he does have the motive. But then, so does everybody else, including Thamba’s two henchmen, the MLA and his son, and the snubbed businessman. Even the head of the Chennai fishermen has a motive.
In most murder mystery novels, we have a detective sufficiently removed from the murder and its suspects. We need that distance to see things objectively, or at least pretend to. We also need a narrator, to give us some background, some context, some continuity. We need the narrator to ask the detective questions we’re too ashamed to ask. And finally, we need both to sit us down after everything is over, to throw aside the curtain, show us the body, and explain how it was done.
The last is a genre standard. It’s essential to give the audience closure. It’s essential for a murder mystery.
This set up, of a narrator and detective, works well in the written form. When that is transplanted to the screen, it feels a bit clumsy, a bit lazy. Why tell, when one only needs to show?
In Kathakali, the narrator is the hero. And, we are led to believe, the detective too. Or is the detective the scenery chewing, hard-as-nails police inspector? To resolve this conflict, we have miles and miles of voice over and narration. At the start of the film, somewhere in the middle, and at the end.
Despite all this, and despite the singularly underwhelming music by Hip Hop Tamizha, Kathakali is fairly interesting to watch, and has its highs. A moderately fun, a moderately more exciting whodunit.
The Kathakali review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.