Director: Khalid Rahman
Cast: Mammootty, Shine Tom Chacko, Arjun Ashokan
Music: Prashanth Pillai
Early in Unda, sub-inspector Mani (Mammootty) looks on half-amusingly, sipping a paper-cup of tea, as a pick-pocketer nicks a man’s purse at an election rally in Chhattisgarh. The thief gets jittery when he senses the staring cop, and abandons his work. Mani smiles, finishes his tea, and leaves. His colleague wonders why didn’t he do anything – may be, catch the man by his collar and thrash him, like a real policeman – but Mani thinks it’s okay to be a pick-pocketer in a world full of thieves several times bigger.
This policeman, old, weary and kind, is the unlikely hero of Khalid Rahman’s sophomore film Unda, an interesting human drama set in India’s red corridor. Mani is the head of a sub-group of policemen from Kerala who are sent on election duty to Chhattisgarh. They are supposed to assist the armed forces and the local police in conducting the Lok Sabha elections peacefully without disruptions by Maoists. But, in reality, there is little they can do. The policemen are terribly underprepared – emotionally and materially – to face threats from armed insurgents. They don’t really understand the intricacies of the decades-old insurgency and the politics of the region. None of them has experience in handling a crisis as large as the one looming over them. Soon, they realise they aren’t carrying enough bullets. What began as a semi-excursion for the squad quickly turns into a glum life-or-death situation.
Khalid Rahman picked up the story-thread from a two-column snippet that appeared in a newspaper years ago during election season, when a bunch of policemen from Kerala was sent on official duty to the naxal-affected areas of Chattisgarh without adequate ammunition or other forms of preparation. In the film, he turns the trunk box of ammunition that the Kerala government promises to send to Chhattisgarh into a fine metaphor for the disjointed and partly dysfunctional system that holds India together.
Unda could have been set in any place where death isn’t so far-fetched, like a war zone or a remote village hit by a natural disaster. At its core, the film is about the myriad ways human beings behave when they are the most unguarded and pushed to the wall. The plot is driven by the characters, and Rahman does a great job of humanising them, through interesting little moments, such as the early scene where Mathews (Ranjith) nervously inquires at a railway counter in broken Hindi about the vehicle that was supposed to ferry them to the camp, or when Mani recounts an old incident to explain to the lads why the police station is a bad place to work in. The film’s sense of humour is delightfully subtle, arising out of the desperate situation the team is caught in.
The policemen carry emotional baggage of various kinds. The bosses back home are unresponsive to their concerns. Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) is on the verge of a bitter divorce caused by his ego issues and philandering ways. Constable Biju (Lukman) has to bear with loud and subtle casteist abuses from people around him on a daily basis. More than once, Mani’s leadership comes under question. He smiles at shopkeepers and the tribals whom his paranoid subordinates refuse to trust. Some of the young men interpret his innate softness as a weakness that could put the team in deep trouble. These sentiments and disagreements, often repressed, come to play out in the open here.
Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2018) had a similar setting (Government servants on election duty in Chhattisgarh). Newton used its characters as imageries to make a bigger statement that in a terrain as humongous and complex as India, no element or idea of governance can function on its own without allowing itself to be polluted by other components. Newton’s (Rajkummar Rao) stubborn sense of ethics clashes with the practical ways of the military officer (Pankaj Tripathi), while a local Adivasi woman (Anjali Patil) looks on passively, in an understanding that the democracy in place doesn’t include her voice.
Unda functions in a more obvious commercial framework, ending on a optimistic note, using the Maoist threat as a tool to let the characters redeem themselves. There is an obvious cautiousness to not be provocative, and to not to slip into a realm of pathos or serious politics that a weekend crowd might not want to watch.
The film has a brilliant cast that helps you grow closer to the characters, and root for them when they are reduced to laughing stocks. The actors are top-notch, especially Mammootty, who returns to a fabulous form in a well-written role that is a complete foil to the angry-cop roles he has played many times in his career. He effortlessly beings to the fore the adorable earnestness of Mani.
While the film doesn’t explore the details of regional politics, it fleetingly explains the complexities of it using the character of Kunal Chand (Omkar Das Manikpuri), an Adivasi man. Chand also becomes a prism through which Biju sees his place within the police force. His breakdown in front of his team members is, however, the film’s weakest scene. It is well-staged – the air is rife with tension – and enacted well, but the dialogues are poorly written. The young man, pushed around and subjected to heinous casteist harassment at work, speaks in a tone of weird self-pity (“I joined the police because I wanted some respect”), without the slightest hint of anger. In the final moments, the film flutters between reality and a kind of absurd comedy – which is, nevertheless, thoroughly enjoyable – echoing the moral of an old fable that any kind of crisis can be overcome if people worked together. Mani and his men, in reality, are too powerless to solve the humongous issues that Kunal Chand’s people face. But the audience gets the comfort of a happy ending, laughing together at an impaired system.
The Unda review is a Silverscreen original article. 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.