Go back to 2015. Ask a Malayali to close his eyes and imagine a cop, and there’s a good chance that he’d picture a Suresh Gopi-like figure, standing tall, frowning, giving a heavy dose of high-decibel dialogues (peppered with English words) to high-profile criminals and simultaneously beating the shit out of them. After all, Gopi did a slew of films that pretty much defined this firebrand idea of a police officer for the layman viewer. Now, it was into this terrain that Biju Poulose made an entry into the minds of Malayalis in 2016. (Over the years, we had Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Unda as well, so today this imagining activity may result in a closer-to-reality mental picture.)
Anyway, the trailer of Action Hero Biju was a little misleading. It was presented as a comedy film with a few mass moments, probably a marketing gag to capitalise on Nivin Pauly’s post-Premam stardom. However, anybody who has watched Action Hero Biju would agree that it’s way more than just a cop comedy. I think it’s a well-researched episodic account of the life of a sub-inspector in Kerala. The tagline is spot-on: it is indeed, a “ride with a police officer”.
The film is centred on Biju Poulose (Nivin Pauly), the sub-inspector of a police station in Ernakulam. He and his team of police officers deal with a variety of cases, and writing the film’s plot would mean enlisting the cases one-by-one, because that’s how the screenplay has essentially been constructed: Case1: conflict and resolution, Case2: conflict, Case3: conflict and resolution, Case2: resolution, Case4: conflict and so on. The cases overlap, and they range from utter silly to mighty heartbreaking to goddamn life-threatening.
Here are some of the phenomenal aspects of the film that have stayed with me post (multiple) viewing(s).
1. The Characterisation of Biju Poulose
Is the characterisation of Biju a complete contrast from the cinematic status quo? No. He too is the rough-tough-responsible police archetype. He does get a massy introduction scene feat. a coconut (and a quirky voiceover). And he does go about bumping and thumping truths out of the accused. But there is still some novelty – some puduma – that scenarists Abrid Shine and Muhammad Shafeeq manage to bring onto the canvas.
We get glimpses into his personal life as well: he is all set to marry Benetta Dominic (Anu Elizabeth), and he strives to achieve a work-life balance. He dons multiple roles in society: he is a mentor to young kids; he is a negotiator for cases of personal and professional disputes and so on. Above all, he’s a sensible, educated officer who knows what he’s doing; having left the comforts of a teaching job to choose the tough life. There’s a scene where, during a remuneration dispute, Biju takes a paper from his table and makes calculations while listening to the data being presented to him: A minute detail, and yet it tells you scores about his level-headedness. Despite the pompous title, Nivin Pauly skillfully underplays the “action hero” in Biju until the last ten minutes of the film; It is probably his most mature performance (after Moothon), as he makes everything about Biju – dialogue, body language, action and reaction – as real as possible.
2. The Mundaneness of It All
We Indians have been conditioned to expect cop films to be high-voltage cat-and-mouse affairs featuring Mr.Invincible Cop and Mr.Deadly-But-Dies-In-The-End Supervillain. From Commissioner to Singham to even the recent Simmba, this is the foolproof pan-India template. In AHB however, in place of a central conflict the focus is spread over several mini-conflicts, most of these comprise cases which aren’t gravely dangerous rides but rather plain human affairs that demand an effective supervision: documentation of FIRs and petitions, reporting, negotiations and out-of-court settlements. Instead of serving macro-justice on a platter (say, saving the city from a big goon) the police operates a more micro level here, like they do in reality – attending to individual, and sometimes trivial, needs of people: a majority of these people being the underprivileged for whom the judiciary is a far cry. So yes, if you thought Commissioner was a rollercoaster viewing experience with Sureshettan “shit”ting all over the place, Action Hero Biju is a bumper car in comparison. And this down-to-earth (pun intended) treatment ushers into the police story a gush of freshness.
3. An Impeccable Supporting Cast
In a way, Biju – and the police milieu broadly – acts as the carrier of the screenplay. The real “pulp” in this fiction (wink) lies in the individual stories (i.e cases) being addressed. The police-setting is the stage, and almost every story has their performer(s) enter, KILL IT in their limited stage-time, and then promptly exit. The editing is also such that there is no breathing space between cases.
As the film ends, a stunning plethora of faces stick with the viewer- like those of a heartbroken father (Suraj Venjaramoodu’s breakthrough as a mainstream character actor), a dishonest domestic worker (Rohini), the strong-willed single mother of a school-going junkie, a lovable roadside drunk (Aristo Suresh) and so on. Every character is either a victim or a perpetrator; but crime is dealt with as a grey (and not black) area (criminals are also ultimately human!) The performances ensure that the film is packed with genuinely funny and genuinely disturbing scenes. Special mention to these two wonderful actors who created a colossal comedic impact with one kallachiri!
4. The Use of Music
For a “commercial” film, the soundtrack of AHB is a striking outlier (Have you noticed how old-school the instrumentation is in Pookkal?). Jerry Amaldev, coming back after a 20-year hiatus, picks off from where he left and hands Abrid Shine a very 80’s playlist. I really liked how the quintessential hero introduction song had lyrics in Sanskrit (Hara Hara) and how the humour in a chase situation is elevated by a craftily slow melody (Chiriyo Chiri).
And of course, there’s the highly enjoyable Muthe Ponne Pinangalle from Mr. Aristo Suresh. It’s a remarkably placed song; a drunkard – accused, mind you – is sitting in front of the SI and singing and nicely using their official table as percussion, while a group of policemen stand by and cheer. For that stretch of three minutes, the hierarchy blurs and we get a glimpse of the janamaithriness and empathy that’s very much instilled in our real-life police officers.
To Sum It Up...
We’ve always had films that portrayed police officers as superhumans. But it’s doubtful whether these films have managed to create in the viewer a sense of respect to the profession. We finally have a fitting tribute of a film that acknowledges the physical, emotional and temperamental struggles, as well as the ethical-moral dilemmas that police officers go through on a daily basis. Nivin Pauly deserves credit for backing this kind of a film at a stage when he could have opted for more commercial scripts and amped up his stardom.
Now AHB was a still light-hearted take on the profession. Memories and Mumbai Police were great of course, but I’m personally waiting for more raw police stories to hit the marquee. And with Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum currently in production, hopes are high this year!