For me, 2022 was the ‘year of the anti-hero’, for primarily two reasons: One, the release of Taylor Swift’s impeccable eponymous single from her latest album ‘Midnights’; and two, the birth of a competent, original protagonist in Mukundan Unni Associates.
When I watched MUA in theatres last month, it was a pretty overwhelming experience. I hadn’t much context of the film’s premise (the cleverly edited trailer didn’t give much away). I was intrigued right from the first frame (“Ith bhoolokam. Ith Benz car..”). As the movie progressed, I became increasingly invested in the titular character, Advocate Mukundan Unni. The screenplay, especially in the first half, had many medico-legal technicalities, so I couldn’t wholly sit back and enjoy the character’s quirks in the first watch. The film was released on Hotstar this week, and to relieve myself after three exhausting hours of Varisu, I sat and rewatched the movie with a friend. In the end, I just had one thought: How the hell did they make this guy – this ruthless, manipulative, dangerous guy – so…likeable?
The Wikipedia definition of an Anti-Hero is “a main character in a story who may lack conventional heroic qualities and attributes, such as idealism, courage, and morality.” By this logic, Mukundan Unni qualifies as an anti-hero. He doesn’t have a semblance of idealism or morality in him. Nanma maram poyitt oru nanma beejam polum illa. But again, he does not draw outright hatred or aversion from the audience. There is some charm in the way he goes about his job.
Note that I’m using the word ‘likeable’ with much caution. A likeable character is usually one the audience roots for and whose values the audience identifies with. And in that sense, Mukundan Unni is nowhere close to likeable. He isn’t glorified at any point in the film. The things he does are outright blasphemous – the film is self-aware of his antics and uses dark humor to amplify this absurdity. The makers trust the audience not to take this seriously (right from the ‘Animals were harmed’ title credits).
Now that we have this clarification out of the way (just so that random Wokesh Kumars don’t come charging at my DMs after seeing the title) let’s get to the thick of it.
What makes Mukundan Unni a ‘likeable’ anti-hero?
Okay, relax. Let’s make it more moderate: What makes Mukundan Unni a ‘(slightly) likeable’ anti-hero?
Reason #1: He is an underdog
The audience tends to root for one who is talented but deserves better; in short, the underdog. I even read a blog about this – the author calls this phenomenon ‘underdogma’ – which suggests that people automatically assume the person with less power is righteous and the person with more power is wrong. When MUA opens, we see a skilled, confident youth not getting any opportunities to grow – and we subconsciously start rooting for his success.
Reason #2: He is constantly talking to you
Many films and series leave a weird aftertaste because of the intrigue their characters create in our minds. Take Game of Thrones, or Munnariyippu or the more recently released Ponniyin Selvan – when a character so far as smirks, you begin to feel an itching curiosity about their inner workings. You wonder – What are they thinking at that moment? What are their real goals? And without this knowledge, it isn’t easy to get closure as a viewer and to truly root for a character. You never know when the character will turn the tables on you!
But Advocate Mukundan Unni is different.
He is a man of few words on the outside, but to us (behind the fourth wall), he’s chatty and honest. Every step along the way, the viewer gets a peek into Mukundan Unni’s mind, so it becomes easy to understand why he does what he does. I saw a Cue Interview where director Abhinav Sunder Nayak revealed that the idea for the ‘mind voice’ struck him during post-production. This makes me wonder – would viewers have been as empathetic to Mukundan Unni otherwise?
Reason #3: He has some conventional heroic traits
If you take away the (very!) unethical milieu that Unni works in and put him in, say, the management domain, his strengths could be quite a value add. He is passionate and has specific short-term and long-term goals; he is a structured, logical thinker; he understands the power of incentives and is naturally good at people management. Most importantly, his success is a direct result of his efforts. He is no Shikari Shambu. Even in the one scene where he is saved by a sudden external change (Judge Sangameshwaran getting embroiled in a case right when he contemplates suicide), the external difference isn’t a random Deus-ex-machina. It’s due to a tip that he gave Minister George (at the start of the film). In short, by doing so, he saved not just the minister but himself!
Moreover, he is a textbook example of perseverance. He would do anything – move mountains, get people’s vehicles tumbling down cliffs…anything – to accomplish his goal of ‘happiness’ (correction: lots of happiness). There are more instances, but..you get the gist.
At a time when creators are shunning idealism and attempting to show heroes as flawed individuals, it’s nice to see people working from the other end of the spectrum: taking on entirely negative characters and making entertaining anti-hero plotlines featuring them. Big kudos to Abhinav for the intricate design of this character, who, we hope, will give us many more journal entries into his future escapades (last we heard, there’s a sequel coming out in 2024!).