Ambili vs Kalki vs Thanneer Mathan: Who Won Hearts This August?

August is about to draw to a close with new movies gearing up for release in and around Onam. Let’s take a look at the 3 new Malayalam releases currently running in theatres and see which one comes out on top.

Ambili

Two years ago, as I walked out of the theatre after watching Guppy, I remember being mesmerised by the world John Paul George had created. The characters, the setting, the visuals, and the music stuck with me for quite a long time. Even though I felt that the movie could’ve been trimmed by at least 15-20 minutes, I could sense the potential from its creator. But alas! Guppy did not resonate with the theatre-going audience.

But since its DVD release, Guppy found love and eventually gained cult status. So, when John Paul announced his second movie with Soubin Shahir, one of the most interesting actors in the industry right now, I was intrigued — excited, even. The teaser for Ambili had Soubin dancing carefree to ‘Njan Jackson Allada‘, setting up anticipation for John Paul George’s second directorial. Anyone who has followed Soubin’s career trajectory would have been excited by the promise of his character. A child-like man with endearing quirks.

About 20 minutes into the movie, I realised John Paul is just repeating his formula from Guppy.

A semi-annoying yet adorable title character who, the director makes sure, has our sympathy through dialogues about their virtues from secondary characters.

A secondary lead, who is borderline antagonistic, loves travelling and has a troubled relationship with his barber.

But what worked for Guppy was that these characters were well developed, with a central conflict and the theme of the movie was executed clearly. Sadly, that’s where Ambili lags behind.

A lot of what works in the film is due to Soubin’s performance. He is immensely likeable even though we’ve seen subtler variations of this performance in many of his earlier films. His character’s joy and wildness are best reflected in his body language with a spurt of charm in his every step. But the same cannot be said about Naveen Nazim, who plays Bobby. A better actor would have added several layers to the role, making him more than the joyless, lifeless brute he is. I think I’m mincing my words here. Plain white walls are more interesting to watch than his performance. Remember in Guppy when we weren’t sure whose side we should be on because Tovino charmed the crap out of us? That’s what Naveen’s character Bobby needed. To be honest, considering that this is his debut film, he’s not half as bad. Just that this movie could’ve used a better performance from this character.

Since we’d be spending the majority of the screen time with these two characters, the director should’ve ensured that there’s chemistry between them. He should’ve etched out their dynamics clearly. He should’ve made sure that both characters are accessible to the audience. The movie could’ve been Malayalam’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or “Due Date” or any road movie.

But we’re stuck with a film that has a wafer-thin storyline and resorts to pumping up a sentimental soundtrack to punctuate moments. It’s a film that could have worked just as well had it not taken itself so seriously. To give due credit, the movie has many beautiful shots with rousing music to accompany it. But after a while, you start getting agitated – and frankly, bored – which are not words I thought I’d be using to describe a John Paul George movie.

Kalki

I knew that Kalki was the kind of movie that did not require me to rack my brain when a poster with Tovino wielding a chainsaw hit social media.

When one makes a movie, they should ask themselves these questions:

What are we making?
Who are we making this for?

So I was prepared for an out and out mass movie. But Kalki lacked the punch which one expects in a so-called mass action movie with a moustache-twirling hero and villain.

They could’ve gone three ways with this: 

One, create a movie like Action Hero Biju, which had some elevated drama but was mostly grounded in reality. But that wouldn’t let us have the chainsaw.

So, two, a movie like Commissioner, where we have a dynamic, full-fledged character, we have his motivation, and we get to root for him. 

Or three, they could’ve gone the all-powerful hero route like in Narasimham. Kalki and Narasimham…

Now, what’s common with these three movies is that they each represent what they got right about their respective niche – memorable dialogues, intriguing characters and the most importantly, something that Kalki sorely lacks, a charming lead character who is at the centre of each conflict in the movie. But this movie did not want us to focus on Tovino’s character at all. I mean, he didn’t even have a name! There seems to be some confusion from the makers as to whether to project Kalki as the superhero or a normal man. It’s this contradiction that ends up as the film’s primary drawback. 

There are usually two kinds of action heroes in Malayalam cinema – ones who are grounded and driven by an emotional backstory. Or the hero waiting for his ‘Avengers initiation’. However, in an “action” film like Kalki, the hero is meant to be the very definition of machismo. Someone who can take on a bunch of thugs at the same time or continue fighting after five stabs to the torso. When that’s the case, I’d rather the hero didn’t have a backstory unless it’s something we haven’t seen before. A hero like this can be cool enough without a half-baked backstory to anchor his personality. 

So, with a story that’s been done to death, you’d think the makers would focus on what new perspective they can bring to the table.

Granted, there are some moments of wacky/ dark humour, mostly between the policemen. There is quirky heroism, with a little bit of irreverence, in the actions of the hero. But that wacky side doesn’t get much limelight, and the mass pleaser angle somewhat flickers and dies.

Could they’ve focused better on the action sequences then? With a hulking hero and villain, both of whom look like they could take a beating, they could’ve taken that route. They bought in 4 fight choreographers. But the final output was disappointing. The frames were limited by the low production value and art direction (I swear, the logo for DYP is just the Hand of the King badge from Game of Thrones).

All of this makes Kalki a barely watchable movie with nothing particularly great about it at the end. With a charming actor like Tovino in the lead, Kalki had the potential to become an out and out mass entertainer in Malayalam after a long time (I wouldn’t consider Lucifer a mass entertainer due to the pseudo-intellectual angle Prithviraj and Gopy tried to squeeze in to make a dumb movie sound smart).

The way I categorise movies regardless of the language or genre is based on the entertainment value of the film. The movie could be either so good that I enjoy it. Or so bad that I’d enjoy it. Both Kalki and Ambili belong to the third kind. The ones that are just awfully boring.

However, that’s where a movie like Thaneer Mathan Dhinangal reigned supreme.

Thaneer Maththan Dhinangal

Having no familiar faces both on and behind the screen, TMD is proof that content is king. I’m not a follower of Box Office collections nor do I believe that’s any indication of the film’s quality. (*cough Pulimurugan cough*)

But TMD was made on a tiny budget and has already earned more than 10 times the initial investment!

There’s something timeless and familiar about the insecurities and irritations that a teenager has to go through while coming of age. The writer and director manage to navigate it through fresh paths in their debut film. It is when we think of how poorly the concept has been treated before in movies like Oru Adaar Love that we realise how hard it is to accomplish what Girish has done. There is hardly a scene in the whole movie where he loses focus. The humour flows through effortlessly, even in the slightly restive moments towards the end. Every one-liner worked wonders, and the situational comedy was top notch.

Malayalam movie industry has been milking nostalgia for a while now. So kudos to the writer and director for being restrained. The script and the execution manages to put us in the middle of the action. The equation we see on screen between the characters is extremely real, and somewhere along the way we all end up connecting with them. Every young actor in the movie delivered, with many of them managing to leave an impression even in the few scenes that they got.

Thanneer Mathan Dhinangal is a movie smartly crafted out of a simple structure with zero pretension, and seeing how it fared well compared to its competition, I’m inclined to say that sometimes less is actually more.

Pick of the month: Thanneer Mathan Dhinangal

Shahbaz M
I see movies, I talk about it.

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