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Antakshari and the Problem of Underpowering Protagonists

Antakshari movie analysis of underpowering protagonists

In the movie Antakshari, writer and director Vipin Das deftly uses light and shadow, music and silence, multiple themes and a unifying motif to assemble an excellent psychological thriller.

However, the climax of the movie raises an interesting question about how and why filmmakers shape protagonists in certain ways. The following is an analysis of the climax without any major spoilers.

The protagonist in Antakshari is Saiju Kurup, who excels in the dramatic leading role of Das, a Police Circle Inspector who’s been in the service for 12 years. As the trailer implies, he’s now being targeted by the movie’s antagonist.

In the climax of Antakshari, Das knows that he has to prepare for a violent confrontation. One that might possibly end with him and his family dead.

Yet, by the end of the climactic sequence, it’s hard not to wonder why Das took so long and struggled so much to subdue the antagonist. One possible reason is that the film chose to underpower his character.

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To understand what an underpowered protagonist looks like, it’s important to examine the inverted and more widely analysed version of it: overpowered (OP) protagonists.

As the name implies, an OP protagonist has a ridiculous amount of strength, speed, stamina or other powers. These character strengths are often used to resolve plot conflicts in an emphatic, stylish manner. The problem is that storytelling thrives on genuine conflict resolution, and in most cases, that’s what sophisticated audiences want as well. An OP protagonist negates that.

Examples range from anime characters to American superheroes, depending on your outlook. The reason Superman is often cited as an “uninteresting” character is because, in his universe, hardly anything stops him (except Kryptonite). He’s relatively overpowered.

Malayalam movies have often overpowered their protagonists, especially if they were portrayed by superstars like Mammooty and Mohanlal. It could be argued that audiences liked seeing their heroes act “larger than life” on screen, but this is where the genre and tone of the movie need to be taken into account.

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Take the case of Mammooty and his movies Rajamanikyam and Unda.

It makes sense when Bellary Raja’s kick sends a henchman flying through the air, since Raja exists in a genre (action comedy) whose aesthetics (uplifting background score, focus on heroism, unrealistic events) are both understood and expected by the audience.

But when Sub Inspector Manikandan takes on several goondas in Chhattisgarh, it’s jarring because Mammooty’s character has suddenly been overpowered for the sake of an “entertaining” climax. His actions are completely at odds with; his characterisation throughout the movie, the aesthetic style of the movie, and the internal logic of the plot.

Manikandan was overpowered in order to, perhaps, appease fans of Mammooty, or rather because the filmmakers decided that’s what audiences wanted to see.

Viewers who criticised the climax spotted the signs: slow-motion camera movement, stylistic camera focus on the hero, use of ‘punch’ dialogues and more that were utilised in order to overpower the protagonist.

But Antakshari’s underpowering of Das, it could be argued, slips under the radar because viewers are more forgiving of the techniques used to achieve it.

In the climactic fight, Das is extremely ill-prepared. He does not make use of his police-issued gun. His wife is not instructed to call his police colleague, who expressed his willingness to assist him. He shows no signs of having received any type of police training that’s normally used to subdue suspects. His approach toward the antagonist shows a sense of leniency that’s at odds with a father desperately trying to save his family from a psychopath.

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Why was this done? In essence, for the same reason, Manikandan became a superhero. Because it allowed the filmmaker to utilise several filmmaking techniques. Long takes follow Das through gorgeously shot, heavily forested darkness. Artistic flourishes such as revolving camera movements. Maximising the dread of the antagonist through sound and lighting.

All of these techniques have been executed very well in Antakshari. But the script did not earn the right to utilise these techniques any more than Unda did when they turned mild-mannered Manikandan into a superhero figure.

There are various tools a screenwriter can use to handicap a protagonist. For example, foreshadowing how a character’s bike often fails, adds to the tension when he is trying to escape from a killer in the climax. But without that foreshadowing, the hero’s desperate attempts to kickstart a bike feels like lazy storytelling. 

Similarly, there’s a sequence where Das chases down and subdues a young woman. That scene could have shown how physically inept he was. The next scene where he’s berated by his superior could have reinforced that idea in our minds, thereby laying the grounds for a more believable climactic fight. Instead, Das is shown to be quite capable of arresting a belligerent suspect.

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In the end, the underpowering of Das in the climax of Antakshari is dwarfed by all the ways in which the movie was meticulously put together. It’s still a great psychological thriller. But that doesn’t mean we as viewers can’t examine and explore how storytelling can be improved.