Mamangam starts with a voiceover by director Ranjith that narrates a chapter from the 18th century Kerala history: an ongoing battle of blood between Zamorin rulers and Valluvanadan suicide warriors. It’s set in the backdrop of a festival of epic proportions held once in 12 years, on the banks of Bharathapuzha. The narrative opens with a long shot of the festival, streets lit with fire lamps, full of people dressed in off-white and soldiers in uniform, and a procession heralding a Zamorin King to his throne. Once seated, a minister asks the crowd if anyone opposes this coronation. A warrior leaps out from the crowd and stations himself in front of the people. It’s also a leap that sort of knocks you off your feet–and hilariously so. The warrior is of course Mammootty and just everything goes horribly wrong in this scene. There is a hidden rope which helped him jump and the megastar clearly looks out-of-place. This is evidently the work of an amateur VFX professional. The fight that follows is equally inorganic, leaving a sour aftertaste in your mouth and an uneasy premonition of what to expect.
To be fair though, the plot does get better as the narrative fast forwards 24 years to accommodate two key players in the story—Chandroth Panicker (Unni Mukundan) and his nephew Chanthunni. They are getting ready to fight the Zamorin rulers for survival.
Directed by M Padmakumar, written by Sajeev Pillai (with credit for adapted screenplay to Shankar Ramakrishnan), Mamangam is about the futility of war and the subsequent effect on families. At least that’s what we thought the point of the movie was, especially when the characters are constantly on a journey to the battlefield. A divine intervention leads Chandroth Panicker to walk into the battleground, and his nephew follows suit. The women, meanwhile, are mostly onlookers, with their duties restricted to crying and praying for their sons, husbands and brothers. There is Kaviyoor Ponnamma, looking bored as an old matriarch, Kaniha as the dull and wailing mother, Anu Sithara as Panicker’s sobbing wife whose lines are so verbose that they sound hilariously off-key.
The making is distinctly old school, with stagey production, wordy dialogues and tediously framed action scenes, more so when a film like Baahubali has already set an example. While there are moments that hold our interest (the narrative is familiar), one wishes the characters were more well-written. Mammootty’s character—Chandroth Valya Panicker— is the most underwhelming period hero ever, who has some similarities with his character Chandu from Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. He is a largely misunderstood hero, who is labelled a traitor by his own family. He is shown as a courageous warrior who benignly helps his nephews in their mission and even masquerades as an effeminate man inside a brothel. The effeminate disguise, though cutesy in parts, somehow feels like a man play-acting as a woman. The unnecessary bombasts that the sub characters use to describe him seem like the handiwork of Shankar Ramakrishnan.
Unni Mukundan as Chandroth Panicker doesn’t have the gravitas to emotionally anchor the character, which is also underwritten. Even the young nephew—except for his adeptness at Kalaripayattu—remains unmemorable.
The screenplay is fragmented. Take for instance the stretch inside a brothel that suddenly takes on an investigative thriller mode, with Siddique playing a sleuth (we think?) in his period costume. He is a chieftain who is trying to investigate the murder of a formidable Muslim warrior, leading to a line-up of ambiguous characters. There is Prachi Tehlan’s Unnimaya, a devadasi who is eulogised as a seductress, and has the Muslim warrior under her spell. It seems like an unnecessary build up to a character who is deflected prematurely from the story. Her lover (Sudev Nair) grimaces when he sees her with other men but otherwise, his backstory is vague. These uneven strands in the story don’t quite gel well, especially when we are under the impression that the narrative is still following Chandroth Panicker and his nephew.
The core ideological conflict in Mamangam—the mindlessness of war and bloodshed to uphold family honour and tradition—is fascinating on paper, but doesn’t transition well to the screen. All through the film, we see the pointlessness of this bizarre tradition, where a few men who call themselves suicide warriors set out to conquer a system and continue to get slaughtered in the bargain. The worst part? Even when they get killed, it doesn’t really matter—neither their emotional ordeal, nor familial loss. If the maker’s attempt was to bring out the story of unsung heroes from a forgotten chapter in Kerala’s history, it would have hurt no one to let it languish inside the history books.