Rajeev Ravi takes a special interest in his hometown Kochi, and it’s pretty apparent from a significant body of his work that I would like to call the Kochi Trilogy. He likes to deep-dive into the unexplored underbellies of the dynamic ‘Smart City’ that Kochi is otherwise marketed as. First, he made Annayum Rasoolum (2013), an inter-religion love story with Fort Kochi as the setting. He has completed Thuramukham (2020) which is set in the ’40s and centred on the fisherfolk of Cochin harbour. In Kammattipaadam (2016), he sets up a gangster drama in the backdrop of an originally agricultural slumland which underwent massive structural changes in the ’90s.
For starters, this is not a Dulquer Salman film. It’s a Rajeev Ravi film, brought to life by a superb ensemble cast; only the story is seen through the eyes of Dulquer Salman’s character. Kammattipaadam is rather the story of Balan, Ganga and all the people of the Dalit community of the area: a gory story of oppression and retribution.
Krishnan (Dulquer Salman), who’s a security professional in Mumbai, receives an ominous call from his estranged friend Ganga (Vinayakan). Suspecting that he’s in danger, Krishnan takes off to their hometown Kochi, seeking answers and reminiscing his tumultuous past – his younger days with Balan (Manikandan Achari), Anitha (Shaun Romy), Ganga and others – on the way.
Kammattipadam is an example of excellent casting. Within the same pack of friends, there’s Dulquer Salman on one hand who oozes textbook-charm, and on the other, there’s Vinayakan, Manikandan Achari, and Shaun Romy who are dusky-skinned and not your “conventional protagonists”. It’s a particularly fresh call, considering our generally racist tendencies. (FYI, Maniyanpilla Raju was blackfaced to play a Tamilian in the much-celebrated Chitram!) Malayalam cinema has not yet produced its own Morgan Freeman, because an actor’s scope to headline a project is still hugely dependent on perceived notions of screen presence and good looks. It’s definitely refreshing to see the aforementioned actors take centre stage and let us into their characters’ minds. In the process, we end up admiring the characters and realize how “beautiful” these people all are as performers. The kind of fanfare that Vinayakan garnered post the film is a testament to this radical impact.
Rajeev Ravi pulls off a casting coup, sprinkling known faces into the film – Suraj Venjaramoodu, Vinay Forrt, Shine Tom Chacko, Shane Nigam and Alancier Ley to name a few – as supporting characters, and the good part is, he gives each of them at least one scene’s scope to create an impact.
The film is packed with characters on different points of the grey spectrum. Considering Krishnan’s gang to be the good side and aashan (Anil Nedumangad) and his associates to be the bad side would be a long shot because remember, the former are also bonafide criminals and the latter have somehow contributed to the city’s development. Evidently, there is no black and white here.
Another superb aspect of scenarist Balachandran’s characterisation is that the women – Anitha as well as Balan’s wife Rosamma – do not exist solely for the purpose of romance of the male characters (phew!). The presence of Anitha creates tension in the Krishnan-Ganga equation (which blows out of proportion eventually). Years after Balan’s death, Rosamma becomes a powerful matriarch, who then becomes instrumental in helping Krishnan reach his nemesis. (Doesn’t her character have a semblance of Kanta Bai from Sacred Games?)
The most baffling character of the lot is Ganga because almost throughout the film the viewer is manipulated to dislike him for his ‘misdeeds’. In his youth, he is insecure of the attention that Krishnan gets from his own household (Balan); later, he is jealous of Krishnan’s budding relationship with Anitha whom he secretly loves, and at one point of the film he legit ditches Krishnan post a brawl with the police. Years pass by and all the members of the gang have moved on to lead decent lives but Ganga continues his ruffian lifestyle. However, over time he realizes the gravity of his wrongdoings, and one can safely assume that his phone call to Krishnan was more of a “Sorry for everything, please take Anitha back!” than “Help me, I’m in danger!” (If you notice carefully, his tone is more remorseful than frightened). Moreover, he reasons out that he didn’t choose the thug life (literally); the circumstances that led to it were beyond his control, considering his low socio-economic status and everything that came with it. At this juncture, it’s the viewer’s prerogative whether or not to sympathise with him.
3. Technical finesse
I really liked the rustic vibe that the music and background score by composer K exuded, right from the title credits. The edits by B. Ajithkumar are impressive: the story is told through a trilinear narrative style, yet not once does the viewer lose track of the proceedings. Also, people who complain about the length of the film (178 minutes) should also know that the original cut was of four hours! (It hasn’t been released yet, though there was talk of getting out a Blu-ray version). Bringing it down by an hour without diluting the impact and consistency is laudable indeed. And then there’s DOP Madhu Neelakandan’s camera that breathes life into the screenplay. Anurag Kashyap fans may rejoice at the sight of multiple “frantic shots” that have Rajeev Ravi written all over them (For the uninitiated, Ravi has handled the camera for many Kashyap projects including DevD and Gangs of Wasseypur).
4. The setting and aftertaste
The film addresses the mass dislocation of hundreds of households in the Kammattipaadam area, whose lands were seized by real estate biggies in the name of development. Ironically, most of the posh hubs of present-day Kochi (like Panampilly Nagar and Gandhi Nagar) were built on these lands. In fact, there’s an eye-opening Indian Express article that talks about this period of change. Do check it out.
Anyway, the biggest irony in this scheme of things is that Balan and gang (under instructions from their aashan) were part of the evacuation of hundreds of people from their own community, not just standing witness to corporate cruelty but also being the muscle power behind it. It is when Balan’s grandfather- seeing the plight of the displaced – dies heartbroken, that Balan stops and questions/threatens the authorities above him.
This becomes a crucial plot point for further events.
Among the many impactful scenes in the film, the ending sequence particularly stood out for me. Krishnan confronts the aashan (who justifies his killing Ganga by saying that stray dogs that enter homes should be killed); he kicks the landlord out the glass window of his own skyscraper apartment. It’s a very symbolic catharsis, where a man in high power is made to fall and spill blood on the very land containing the blood (and sweat and tears) of many that he was a reason for. And where Kammattipadam succeeds in creating a stabbing impact (pun not intended) is when the film ends and the camera pans over to the now-sprawling city that Kochi is – and it slowly sinks in that this couldn’t just be entirely fiction; that somewhere in this chaos lies a solemn tribute to the multitudes of lives that were suppressed in the process of Kochinization.
To sum it up…
Considering that the original cut was four hours, I sometimes wonder if the film would’ve created a bigger impact if conceived as a web series. Of course, back in 2016 OTT hadn’t yet penetrated our market. But the thought of a ten-ish episode setup is exciting, as it would have aided Rajeev Ravi in fleshing out his characters more, shedding more light on their conflicts. (We still have our doubts: for example the nature of the relationship between Sunny and aashan, whether the murder of Ganga was a planned conspiracy… I’m sure the longer version would have had explanations for everything).
However, the package in hand is definitely worth a watch, owing to its unconventional take on ‘development’. It’s such a positive-sounding term that we hardly ever think it comes with a cost. In Kammattipaadam, Rajeev sheds light on the social, cultural and most importantly, economical cost this development brought about. He went on to say in an interview that urbanisation was a “cancer” that only a few actually benefited from.
To people who loved Angamaly Diaries (the other noteworthy gangster film of recent times): Kammattipaadam is a less populist piece in comparison, but if you found yourself invested in the katta local gangster plot, there’s a high chance this one will also…strike down upon thee.