Malik is editor turned writer, director Mahesh Narayanan’s latest after Take Off and C U Soon. The Malayalam feature starring Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan and Vinay Forrt in lead roles unpacks a politically layered, complex story of two coastal communities and their scramble for survival.
Though the film begins with a disclaimer that it is entirely fictional, the sagacious viewer can draw parallels between Ramadapally where the story is set, and the Cheriyathura – Beemapally coastal belt in the outskirts of Kerala’s capital city of Trivandrum, where six Muslim fishermen were killed and several injured in 2009, after the police opened fire to allegedly contain ensuing communal tensions.
Malik opens with a long, detailed, single shot that takes the viewer through the bustle inside the residence of Ahammadali Sulaiman (Fahadh Faasil), a frail, geriatric man preparing to leave for the Hajj pilgrimage. Very Godfather-esque in its tone, the viewer is soon acquainted to the towering persona of Sulaiman, a yesteryear overlord and protector of the land and residents of Ramadapally, respectfully referred to by everyone as Malik.
The scene also introduces Roselin (Nimisha Sajayan), Sulaiman’s wife, an ageing Christian woman as she walks through the household, unveiled, composed and self-assured. Roselin is the sister of David (Vinay Forrt), Sulaiman’s childhood friend and confidante. The trajectory of Sulaiman and Roselin’s love story serves as an important plot device in the film.
As manipulative forces succeed in tearing apart Sulaiman and David, Roselin remains the link that irreversibly ties them together, even in cacophony.
The story spans several decades beginning in the 1960s, when Jameela ( Jalaja), Sulaiman’s mother lands in Ramadapally with an ailing, seven year old Sulaiman, his younger sister and father. After the demise of her husband, Jameela is given shelter in Ramadapally, where Sulaiman grows up, meets David and enters the world of smuggling and other criminal activities.
The main narrative chronicles Sulaiman’s rise and fall through crime, bloodshed and culpable nexus. His journey does not deviate from commercial cinema’s favourite formula of the underdog who rises to become a Don, only to be defeated by his own unholy past.
What makes Malik engrossing is its cognizance of the sub plots – the lives, aspirations and longings of people belonging to a coastal belt, constantly challenged by natural calamities and a system that profits from pitting them against one another.
Though the film over simplifies the communal undertones in the narrative and tactfully hazes out the timeline to prevent any linkage to that of the Beemapally firing and the then incumbent government in Kerala, it does a fairly good job of unspooling the conflicts in the lives of the communities rendered vulnerable by multiple factors.
Where it falters though, is in the way it presents its women, especially Roselin – contradictory and heavily burdened by the male gaze.
Nimisha Sajayan’s Roselin: Contradictory and heavily burdened by the male gaze
We meet Roselin as a feisty young girl who cannot be talked down. She is the only girl in her fisherfolk community to have made it to college. But almost immediately, her intelligence and practical sense are questioned by David and Sulaiman, who discredit her by accusing her of being fickle in her intention to help fellow fisherwomen.
Sulaiman’s sarcastic rhetoric “Ini enthengilum vikkan undo?”( Do you have anything else to sell?) is even used as a romantic device to further their love story. From the onset, we see the elements of a patriarchal, gendered power equation in their relationship.
The most striking, promising factor about Roselin’s character arc is her uninhibited expression of desire. She is flustered with envy when Sulaiman is found flirting with women outside a bar hotel. She marches ahead and kisses him firmly to mark her feelings. On their wedding night, it is Roselin who breaks free into the arms of her man, absolutely unabashed and consumed with desire.
A woman who is so sure of herself, and makes decisions that feel right to her is later sidelined into a submissive wife whose purpose seems to be that of shape-shifting in tandem with the wavering currents of Sulaiman’s life.
Sulaiman is showcased as a secular partner to Roselin. He ‘allows’ her to stay loyal to her faith and tells her that she does not have to wear a headscarf. But the same Sulaiman insists that his children be brought up as per the mandates of the Ramadapally mosque. Roselin is shown to find his insistence romantic, accepting it without any conversation. This is exactly where we see the male gaze working itself out.
Malik romanticises Sulaiman for his basic, latent humanity and kinship towards his community and friends. In the process, it conveniently brushes the patriarchal, power drunk man in him under the carpet.
It sometimes seems as if Roselin’s character is fierce only to be noticed by Sulaiman and to give the audience a feeling that she is a good match for the masculine, virile hero. It is later, when Roselin retires to take the onus of Sulaiman’s protection and well-being that we see this trope coming through. She has no scenes where she contradicts Sulaiman or calls him out for the blood on his hands.
The marriage of the rebellious hero and the firebrand heroine is a stereotype that has been used and overused many times over, and Malik is no exception.
All other female characters, however limited in screen time, have their own identities. It is also very promising to note that it is women like Jameela and Shermin (Parvathy Krishna) who eventually hold the power to decide Sulaiman’s fate. But even these characters are not fully explored. They do not exist, if not to either help or defeat Sulaiman. This is why their arcs seem like performative placeholders, even as they claim space in the screenplay.
The universe of Malik is masculine, at the end of the day. The Arabian Sea is a major character in the story, and much like it, the women too are a constant presence – sometimes calm and some other times throbbing with turmoil and threats – yet contained to their assigned geographies.
But what makes it forgivable is the glimpse of a seemingly formidable conscience of the importance of women in narratives like this. This kindles hope that in his next, perhaps Mahesh Narayanan will build on this conscience.
Nimisha and Fahadh have smoldering on-screen chemistry. It is in the sequences between them that we see the magnetism of Fahadh’s eyes. Nimisha is a phenomenon in herself, on her way to unfold into an actor we can never get enough of. All other actors make their presence memorable and contribute to keeping together the layers of the story.
The poet’s Sulaiman and the director’s Sulaiman: An ode to “Theerame..”
No write up about Malik can be complete without an ode to the clairvoyance and penmanship of Anwar Ali, the lyricist. Ali’s arresting “Theerame theerame…” composed by Sushin Shyam and sung by K.S Chithra and Sooraj Santhosh has by now become the visual and poetic identity of Malik.
Ali paints a mystic universe where the Minicoy Islands become a lullaby that momentarily keeps the roaring perils of the sea and life at bay from the romantic walks of Sulaiman and Roselin.
Ali makes Sulaiman the magnetic lover, waiting in his Emerald castle beneath the sea, for the Hoori to grace it. Roselin becomes the beloved, grateful for his hamlet of love, which she calls the fruition of her prayers.
But Mahesh’s Sulaiman is much more complex, grey and masculine compared to Ali’s lovestruck Sulaiman, humbled by the magnanimity of his feelings, who wishes to conquer nothing. Roselin is stuck between the two, slowly accepting that it is Mahesh’s Sulaiman, the Malik, who will win.
In fiction and reality, this dissonance is perhaps the most undeniable experience of being a heterosexual woman, a lover, in a man’s world.
Malik is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Featured Image Source: Manorama Online