Hannah Elizebeth (Nimisha Sajayan), a cub lawyer, is about to appear in her first trial as a court-appointed counsel for the accused in a murder case. On the other side is her former boss Santhosh Narayanan, an arrogant man who is a celebrity in the legal circles. Minutes before the first trial session, they meet outside the court room – a rendezvous Hannah had tried to avoid in vain. He drives the already awkward small-talk to the topic of a missing book from his office. “You stole it, Hannah”, he says, and she mumbles that she never did it. His words smeared with a smirk sends a shiver down her spine that never quite leaves her that day.
Filmmaker Madhupal structures his films like a novel where it is not the entirety that matters, but the details – the characters and their psyche, the subtle everyday moments that speak volumes. Like the aforesaid scene in Oru Kuprasidha Payyan (A Notorious Boy) that perfectly places the characters in an invisible hierarchy in a machinery that is expected to deliver equal rights to every citizen. The psychological trauma that Hannah suffers is also triggered by the insecurities she deals with everyday as a young woman struggling to carve a place in a work-space dominated by men like Narayan. The film’s protagonist Ajayan (Tovino Thomas) comes from a contrasting social background, yet he and Hannah share many a common strands in life. He is a healthy and handsome young man at first sight. In the opening sequence, he catches a raging bull by its horns. The next moment, the group of people who had been waiting by the side pushes him aside and walks away with the now-secured animal. He yields quietly. An orphan, nothing scares him more than the society he lives in. “Who would hold me if I fall?” he wonders when a friend asks him to shed his fear.
In Oru Kuprasidha Payyan, a grievous murder happens less than half an hour into the film. Chembaka Ammal (Saranya Ponvannan) – a loner who supplied breakfast idli to a local restaurant – is butchered to death one night. The scenes preceding the murder establish her character briefly, but effectively. She was a woman of steel, whose kindness and boldness inspired the people around her. As the film proceeds, the focus shifts from the whodunnit part of the crime to a more complex terrain – about the rot within the police system that victimizes the weakest in the society. We see that the police investigation team refuses to do even the basic ground work that Hannah does in the case, because the system mutely sanctions their irresponsibility.
The scenes of police interrogation are less dramatic than what it looked like in Drishyam, yet spine-chilling. The suspects, all men from vulnerable social classes, are summoned to the police station. You get a high-angle shot inside the interrogation room where each man is surrounded by a group of police men like a hare cornered by a pack of wolves. The civil codes are easily bent and broken inside the police station where terror becomes the weapon. You see the repercussion of what happens within this closed room later when a group of friends decide to betray the meekest among them and save themselves from the police radar.
In Madhupal’s previous films, Thalappavu and Ozhimuri, an eventful past holds the key to a present where nothing much happens on the outside but in the characters’ inner-lives. Ozhimuri starts off from an insipid divorce case filed by a woman in her fifties. From there, Madhupal sets out to narrate a multi-layered tale of gender and generation that unfolds mostly in flashback sequences. Thalappavu is built on a man’s guilt about a state-sponsored murder that he committed many decades ago.
Oru Kuprasidha Payyan has fewer flashback sequences. Yet you see the shadow of the past lurking beneath every character’s demeanor and their engagement in the society. Every action of Ajayan is a butterfly effect that stems from his unpleasant childhood and teenage spent in various juvenile homes and orphanages. Unlike the other suspects, he invests hope in the police at first, and talks to them at length about everything he knows about Ammal, the woman who treated him like a foster son. You see that he never sinks into cynicism because he can’t afford it. The action scene in the second half might look like a commercial element – it’s badly choreographed – but it does add to the characterization of Ajayan who, like the bull he chained in the first sequence, makes every effort to stay alive.
Although the film succeeds in making a lucid character study, it doesn’t work so much as a social commentary that it attempts to be, thanks to a second half that unfolds entirely inside a court room where the proceedings are uni-dimensional, revealing nothing other than the wounded pride of a senior lawyer who thought he was invincible, and the obvious fact that it’s a case of frame-up by the police. Also, in many a place, you might feel that the content deserved a better cinematic craft – a more rebellious and effective visual style and a more restrained sound department. The film looks crude for the most part, as though the filmmaker was torn between his natural offbeat style and commercial desires.
Tovino Thomas, who is quickly turning into one of the top-billed stars in south Indian film industry, delivers a sincere but inadequate performance as Ajayan. Saranya Ponvannan possesses an unparalleled fluidity on screen. In her return to Malayalam cinema after many decades, she fits in perfectly, going from mundane moments of routine life to scenes of emotional breakdown with equal ease. Nevertheless, it is Nimisha Sajayan, the youngest actor of the lot, who delivers the mightiest performance. Her combination scenes with Siddique who plays Bharathan, the court librarian, are top-notch, with the latter adeptly complimenting her nuanced acting that vividly expresses Hannah’s performance anxiety and ambivalence about her profession as a lawyer. Sajayan’s self-assured act as Hannah is easily one of the best performances by a lead actor in Malayalam cinema in recent times, and through this, she becomes the best reason to watch this film that flounders as much as it triumphs.
The Oru Kuprasidha Payyan review is a Silverscreen original review. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.