By Subhash K. Jha
Film: “Villain”; Language: Malayalam; Director: Unnikrishnan; Cast: Mohanlal, Vishal Krishna and Manju Warrier; Rating: ***
The thing about Mohanlal is, he sees things that others can’t. And he makes us see things that other actors cannot. Last year, in the very watchable thriller “Oppam”, he played a blind man whose powers of perception far outstripped those blessed with eyesight.
Since “Oppam”, Mohanlal has done five other films. I missed four of them. But I am glad to catch up with the amazingly prolific and versatile actor in this thriller with balls and heart where he is a cop on the verge of retirement, yanked back to duty after a series of murders rocks the city.
This is not a novel premise to work a thriller around. Dozens of Hollywood suspense thrillers have its cop-protagonist reluctantly getting into the investigative mode just when they would like nothing better than to put up their feet in their living rooms with a bowl of popcorn and watch DVDs of old Clint Eastwood or Mohanlal flicks, depending which way your taste swings.
“Villain” works fine as long as it doesn’t begin to lean on Hollywood prototypes. The indigenous strain is well woven into the thriller. There is an element of inextinguishable anxiety in Mohanlal’s recent performances, a man calm on the surface only because the other option is so terrible it could induce a catastrophic emotional geostorm.
“Villain” builds on Mohanlal’s power to express rage and grief without letting go.
This time, he plays his cat-and-mouse game on a sleek chessboard where the pieces are laid out neatly, a little too neatly, with all the plot points and emotional tropes indicated to us from afar. We really don’t need to strain our intellect or tap into our literary resources, although William Shakespeare is casually brought up in a conversation.
For company, Mohanlal has Vishal Krishna, a remarkably engaging and intelligent actor who makes the bumpersticker wisdom of his rhetorical dialogues sound like lines borrowed from the latest episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond”. I am not too sure if everybody would love Vishal Krishna’s Shaktivel, a smooth-talking doctor, and a portrait of moral ambivalence who stores some surprise that he lets out in the later portions of the plot.
This is a strong part for a co-star in a Mohanlal film and Vishal makes the best of it.
The female lead Manju Warrier has less to do. Don’t they always? Still, Warrier’s character kind of joins the dots, fills up the pauses and bridges the lacuna.
The director never lets his characters lose track of their place in the jigsaw. We really don’t need to look too closely for motives in this murder mystery. It’s all kind of worked out in advance and then allowed to continue building up as it moves forward to a climax that is not entirely unexpected.
“Villain” is not among the very best works of Mohanlal. But it is very handsomely mounted and shot. And it has a certain grip to its narrative. Although it thrusts at profundity amidst the bouts of homicidal assault are to be taken with a pinch of salt, it nonetheless exudes a distant sophistication in its storytelling.