The tales around the Mamangam script were as intriguing as the tales of the eponymous historical event on which it was based, right from the day it was announced. Hailed as a once in a lifetime script by the industry insiders associated with the film early on, it was claimed that the writer- director who was making his debut had spent 15 good years researching the tale. This was something rather unheard of in Malayalam or in fact Indian Cinema, for that matter. The announcement that Mammooty was part of the project accompanied by the obvious, unavoidable din on social media, piqued interests. The average cinephile had his doubts, considering the investments in terms of money, creatitivity and collective efforts, in that order, a tale of this scale demanded from the makers. In fact no one, not even that past master of period dramas from Malayalam seemed to be up to the task when you actually thought about it. Pazhassi Raja worked, but to speak of it in the same breath as Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha is nothing less than blasphemy in the tiny world of Malayalam Cinema if you ask me. But that’s another debate for another day. Then came the controversies in the wake of the ouster of the writer-director along with a change in the original cast and crew, and as a viewer you just hoped for the best. The visuals from the songs and the trailers came out eventually and to be fair to the makers, did help set the expecations just right.
Mamangam the movie tries to trace the rather unrecorded history of a period in Kerala, through the story of three warriors from Valluvanad who are destined to fight at the Mamangam which is held every twelve years on the banks of the Bharthapuzha hosting traders, artists, warriors and rulers from across lands. These warrors who are heading to certain death consider the opportunity an honor and their intent is to behead the custodian of the festival, the Samoothiri, the king who in his conquests supposedly took the rights away from the ruler of Valluvanad, the Konathiri. It’s the tale of two nephews and two uncles, with their own reasons and convictions which decide the course of their lives and hence the story itself. To quote the original writer, only two of these characters have a historical reference and the rest are entirely figments of his imagination. Mammooty plays uncle to Unni Mukundan and Unni plays uncle to newbie Achuthan. The script is as much an ode to the lores of courage and battleground feats as much as it’s an introspection into the workings of the complex themes of revenge, honor, sacrifice, loyalty and mindless violence that’s almost always associated with those concepts, in all corners of the world. What holds the film together is indeed the writing despite the mediocre visualisation that’s almost criminal, considering the avenues of exploration the script opened up, for the right creative visionary of course. Historical accuracy goes for a toss here, when it comes to costumes and backdrops, except when lower castes are portrayed on screen, well almost. The makers could have taken a cue from any of the period dramas on the multitude of streaming platforms around. No one’s asking for a Viking or a Last Kingdom, but we almost certainly did not ask for a rerun of Asianet’s Kayamkulam Kochunni serial. And I’m not discussing the action sequences here, No.
Mammooty has little to do in the film but he is indeed the leading light here though the makers have obvoiously overlooked his stature as an actor and a star you can’t but help feel, given the fact that they’re pitching it as a pan Indian movie, as some of the sequences unfold it’s hard not to cringe. Unni Mukundan is an adequate physical presence but it’s the boy Achuthan who surprises you with something that could be labelled a restrained performance, maybe it’s just the Malayalam cinegoer in me who’s used to watching overenthusiastic child actors who almost always speak and behave in ways that defy their biological and on screen age. Siddique is at ease playing Sherlock when the movie goes into Rashomon mode briefly. The debates early on between the matriarchs played by veteran female actors Valsala Menon, Kaviyoor Ponnamma and Nilambur Ayisha set an interesting premise. Kaniha, Anu Sithara, Sajitha Madathil make customary appearances and disappear quickly. Iniya and Prachi Tehlan stay around for a song or two. Sudev Nair is back again in a period drama though he does not exactly get to play a king in exile this time around. And I’m divided when it comes to Manikandan, is he being typecast or is it actually representation? All things said, done and watched, Mamangam is essentially a lost opportunity. A pan Indian film does’nt have to be a Bahubali or a KGF, a Virus can be one too, thanks to streaming platforms, Aashiq Abu would agree if the grapevine is to believed. I hear the original script is out as a novel, maybe I should check that out, for closure.