The Problem With Unda

What made you watch Unda?

Assuming you did, that is, what got you to go to the theatre this June?

Was it the trailer that showed a group of policemen facing trouble in a distant part of India? Maybe the poster that showed all of them trying to prop up a lorry? Or just the sight of Mammooty in Khaki uniform, apparently training officers to shoot straight?

Most likely it was a distinct combination of all of the above, as well as the potential of Khalid Rahman the director, perhaps?

I’m not sure why I went to the theatre to watch Unda. I’m not even sure what I actually expected. But I came out extremely impressed. And even more disappointed.

And that’s what Unda is. A tug of war between the past and the future, progressive themes and regressive tropes, new generation cinema and old school film.

And the person in the middle of it is also perhaps the one best positioned to settle it. 

Our own Mammukka.

Unda is a movie about a Kerala police unit that’s deployed to a Maoist infested area of Chhattisgarh to as part of Lok Sabha election duty. If you went into the theatre thinking this was a Mammooty starrer, the first fifteen minutes would first surprise and then intrigue you.

That’s the beauty and the problem of Unda. The film can’t decide what it is. Is it an ensemble movie, where all nine characters who make up the police unit are more or less equally important?

As the movie began to progress, I was increasingly convinced it was just that. A fantastic ensemble movie where the characters are slowly fleshed out and used as vehicles to explore themes. Oh, and those themes!

What does Unda explore? What it’s like for a policeman from Kerala? Please, that’s elementary level, Unda can do much better. Okay, so maybe how the State Government needs to provide police officers for a general election conducted at the Federal level? Yes, but add more elements to it. Think of how many barriers such an exercise would have.

Most of the policemen from Kerala won’t be able to speak a word of Hindi. Most of the election duty officers won’t speak anything but Hindi. They’ll be prejudiced against Malayalis and vice versa. How is election duty coordinated, by the way? Is the Kerala police unit incorporated into a giant election duty force for several months? No? Wait so who provides them with food and accommodation and salary? The Central or State government? What is the issue with Naxalites? Are they the greatest threat to the nation? Or are the real devils behind the policemen, rather than in the jungles in front? Are the elections free and fair? Can they ever really be?

Imagine weaving a story through the movements and dialogues of almost a dozen characters over the course of two hours, and successfully commenting about Bureaucracy, Federalism, Democracy, Bigotry, Terrorism, Fascism, Castism and Linguistic Discrimination. Without ever having to rely on exposition or monologues or montages or any of those techniques that are easy ways to convey a heavy-handed message. And instead camouflaging these concepts with dark humour, thrills and drama, so that you end up entertained, intrigued and subconsciously informed as well.

But this is where the cracks start to appear. Because throughout the movie there are moments when it switches from an ensemble movie to one where Mammooty is the lead actor. 

Sub-Inspector Manikandan C.P. is first introduced as a simple, unassuming policeman, one who suffers from gas trouble and has never fired a gun before. You get the impression he’s spent his career settling domestic disputes in the neighborhood and scaring wayward youth, not investigating serial killers and gunning down smugglers.

When the movie gives everyone around him a similar amount of screen time, you are on board. The concept of an ensemble, which I’m assuming wasn’t really marketed clearly to the people like me who came expecting a Mamooty starter, really works.

Then the movie shifts it’s attention to Manikandan and his embarrassing response to a tense firefight with Naxalites. As his subordinates lose respect for him, the exact opposite happens to the audience in theatres who are watching Mammooty. We love how he is portraying a middle-aged, inept and naive policeman in such a vulnerable and convincing manner. We feel offended by the scorn of the younger men in the unit, who are looking away or rolling their eyes in disdain. Have some respect! This can happen to anyone of you. He’s only human!

Ah, human.

Why, makers of Unda, would you spend so much time giving a realistic representation of India and the brave policemen from Kerala who help protect it, only to destroy it all in the last ten minutes.

If Unda as a moviemaking endeavour was a tricky flight that had to traverse multiple themes and issues while carrying a large number of characters, you can almost see how the plane took off smoothly, sailed with a little turbulence in the middle and then finally nose-dived and crashed with a fiery explosion that was as unnecessary as the one they stuffed into the climactic battle.

After two hours of excellent characterization, Mammooty’s Sub Inspector Mani became Singham, beating up thugs who then somersaulted through the air.

I immediately knew why this was done. You can’t be a Malayali for nearly three decades and not know of the reverence Mammooty or Mohanlal enjoys to this day. But what is the logic of crafting a nuanced portrayal of a police unit, based on a real-life story, only to end it with a masala fight scene? Who is the intended audience? Fans who want to understand how Adivasis are treated in the police force, but also how a lathi can make a 100-kilogram man fly 20 meters in the air?

My friend and fellow PinkLungi contributor Shahbaz M. explained how the director of this movie was not pleased with the ending, which apparently was filmed at the insistence of the producer. Which means unless we the audience make it clear that we are smart enough to appreciate a serious movie without needing needless action, producers will continue to fear the fans and look for ways of appeasement. We get the movies we say we like. Else we get the movies filmmakers assume we do.

But I’m not sure how to go about it. Should someone meet with the All Kerala Mammooty Fans Association President? Are these fans the reason why a Mammooty lead movie like Unda has to have a tonally inconsistent ending? Or is this something that should be discussed in movie sites and film forums?

I don’t know, but maybe there’s an easier way. The ending of Unda could perhaps not be controlled by the director. But certainly it couldn’t even be filmed without the approval of the biggest personality on the film set right?

So maybe instead of fans making noise to signal that they are sophisticated enough to watch a well-made movie about an interesting topic without needing bams and dishooms, and directors sticking to their guns and fighting against the financiers of films in order to bring their vision to life, it would be easier if the stars stepped in.

We need thought-provoking, eye-opening movies like Unda. They are important works of art that help us expand our worldview and strengthen our sense of empathy with different sections of society. And today, as one of the greatest actors not just of Malayalam Cinema but Cinema in general turns 68, Mammooty is needed more than ever before. We need him not only because he can act brilliantly and add depth to the movie, or pose in the promotional posters and ensure the theatres are full. We need him because when insecure producers try to alter artistic works out of fear, greed or ego, he is experienced, respected and influential enough to say, “NO”.

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