Malayalam cinema is passing through an interesting period when the mass masala entertainers have come to be the new offbeat. These colorful potboilers featuring an alpha male hero who is capable of doing gravity-defying stunts, who’s feared as much as he’s loved and worshiped, are now seen as a refreshing interruption in the flux of quasi-realistic dramas.
With most of the younger generation heroes focusing on the latter kind of films, Mammootty, one of the two biggest superstars in the Malayalam mainstream film industry, seems to have taken it upon himself to keep the former genre alive.
All movies in the ‘Raja franchise’ (Rajadhiraja, Pokkiri Raja, Madhura Raja) follow a similar plot template. An invincible hero who likes to play the clown, who has a past of sacrifice or loss, comes back from exile to protect his family. The aesthetics of these films stems from the Tamil-Telugu mass hero films of the 90s.
Instead of situational humor, they have comic set pieces where characters perform buffoonery. Scenes set in places like bars and instances of a wedding are inserted into the narrative for the sake of a colorful dance sequence. Sexism, misanthropy, and sadism aren’t frowned upon, and a heroine is, almost always, just a pretty addition to the hero’s domain.
Shylock, directed by Ajai Vasudev, is a fitting follow up to the director’s 2017 film, Masterpiece, also starring Mammootty, a mind-numbingly bad comedy-thriller. Both films run on a thin cliche-ridden plot, tied together by Vasudev’s abysmal sense of filmmaking.
The trick to enjoying Shylock is to submit completely to the movie’s cheesy aesthetics, a loud and incessant noise that Gopi Sunder sells as background score, and its poor writing that leaves comedians like Baiju and Hareesh Perumanna unutilized.
Everything, including a simple domestic moment, is staged without any grace. The film’s archaic storyline ensures that it is smoothly predictable. Intrigue, here, is an alien concept. The hero’s Rolls-Royce gets more prominence in the narrative than the antagonists.
The sole source of light in this utterly dull movie that could tire even the most loyal viewer out is Mammootty’s spirited performance. Mammootty plays a quirky and flamboyant loan shark who goes by nicknames such as Boss and Vaal (tail). His flamboyance is akin to that of Kasaba’s Rajan Skaria or Pokkiri Raja’s Raja. He dresses and acts dramatically – black shirt, kohl-rimmed eyes, a thick chain around his neck, and there is an odd rhythm to his gait.
When one of the supporting characters, a small-time villain, tries to order him about, he bursts into an evil laughter, pushes the man aside and occupies his chair, and declares who the boss is. At one instance, he and his sidekicks barge into a bar owned by his rivals. A dance performance by three scantily-clad women is underway, so he waits, and occasionally participates in the dance.
Boss operates majorly in the film industry, loaning huge sums of money to individual producers and production banners. A powerful movie producer (Shajon) who had repeatedly refused to pay back the money that he owes Boss, begins to get unexpected and unpleasant visits from the latter, on the sets of his films and at important conferences he’s attending.
The producer and his business partner, the city’s police commissioner (Siddique), clash with Boss. A murder later, it comes to light that the rivalry between the parties goes back many years. There is a little too much violence in Shylock. In a different movie, directed by someone with better sensibilities, Boss might have been a psycho killer with a bloody past.
Ajai Vasudev looks at it as a bad video game. A horde of nameless characters (and few prime characters) get stabbed on different parts of their body and drop dead like flies. Thanks to the clumsiness in writing and staging of scenes, it’s hard to empathize with the hero or cheer him when he commits this mass murder and cracks jokes about it.
Heroism isn’t just a skill to kill but it requires careful design. The film, right from scene one, reiterates that Boss is invincible. Every time he appears on the screen, a piece of background music that sings praises of him starts to belt out. There is never a dip in his power graph for the audience to see him or his enemies in a different light and root for him.
Actors like Siddique, Rajkiran, Shajon and Bibin play thoroughly uninteresting uni-dimensional characters. Ajai Vasudev appears as one of the minor villains alongside John Vijay. The duo makes a perfect pair, matching up to each other’s loudness.
There is an obvious (and unreasonable) effort to showcase Mammootty as Rajinikanth. He’s repeatedly compared to Padayappa and Thalapathy. The menace in his body language is evidently designed to match Rajinikanth’s in Pettah and Darbar.
For the superstar’s fans, this display of swag and energy might be a reassurance, that he isn’t tired of playing the idol and being part of nonsensical charades marketed as comedy-action-thriller. But when seen without that ‘fan lens’, it should be apparent that the man looks worn out, from age and probably from having to shoulder an awful film that mocks his stellar career.