Mammootty-Starrer 'Unda' Could Have Been The Anti-'Kabir Singh'

It loses its way towards the end, but in many ways this Malayalam film subverts our expectations of the police and its larger-than-life male superstar.

Social media has been raging with arguments on Shahid Kapoor’s Kabir Singh.

I didn’t watch it.

The trailer of the film gave away enough of the plot...

...and the reviews did the rest of the job.

Instead, over the weekend, I watched Mammootty-starrer Unda. The film has been running in theatres in Kerala for nearly 2 weeks and has been declared a commercial and critical hit, a rare enough occurrence now for the megastar, who has been criticised in recent years for letting his stardom take over the story.

Unda, meaning ‘bullet’, is the story of how a group of Kerala policemen — led by Mammootty’s Manikandan CP — find themselves on election duty in the Maoist-affected Bastar district of Chhattisgarh.

Now, after his infamously sexist turn as a cop in 2016′s Kasaba, any reasonable person would hesitate to watch Mammootty play a man in khaki. In fact, they would hesitate to watch him in any role.

That’s because some of his most famous characters — police officer, IAS officer, gangster― tend to spout dialogues that make a misogynist’s heart sing.

As Balram in Aavanazhi, he slaps a prostitute — a woman he is seeing — after she politely, but firmly, indicates she could wield more influence than he does as a policeman. (He also calls her several names.)

Then there is his infamous “sense, sensibility, sensitivity” monologue in The King, after which he calls his junior colleague an expletive. When she tries to hit him, he grabs her wrist and says, “You will never raise your hand to hit a man again. It’s not that I don’t know this, but you’re a woman, just a woman. Now get lost.”

So, it’s safe to say, he has a history of playing violent, abusive men.

But here I was, sans my kummattikka juice, giving Mammootty the benefit of doubt, based on some positive reviews and a prayer.

My fledgling faith was rewarded with an exploration of masculinity that is rare in mainstream Malayalam films.

If your ideas of the Kerala police were formed only through Malayalam movies, you would end up picturing a set of trigger-happy, domineering men who teach life lessons with their fists.

The group of policemen Unda introduces immediately overturn these expectations. These men aren’t particularly smart. They have bluster but aren’t necessarily brave. They don’t know what Maoists look like, much less what the conflict is about. Many of them have never fired a gun, some don’t even know how to hold one properly. They have so many worries in their personal lives that they have no time to play heroes in their professional ones. And here they are, in a state they know nothing about, including its language, being forced to confront their prejudices and ignorance.

The group is led by the softest Mammootty you’ve seen in recent times. This man, the commanding officer of his team, is willing to defuse situations and calmly make his point instead of shoving his authority down people’s throats. He does not lose his calm when his team members are insubordinate. He panics when faced with a real crisis. His ignorance is often writ large across his face. And he readily admits he has no clue what to do and apologises for letting his team down. Through all this, he is polite, considerate and level-headed.

He is the antithesis of a superstar cop. Not the kind of man his fans would applaud in theatres.

In short, Mammootty’s Manikandan is the nicest, most forthright man he has played in a long, long time.

He remains unfazed as his authority and competence are repeatedly questioned by the ITBP officials he must work with.

His gentle demeanour and humility keeps this team of men together as they stumble through their election duty.

It made me wonder: ‘Can we park our hopes for a less violent world on the shoulders of a “nice man”? What does it take for a “good man” to break? And when he does break, how will he respond?’

The film answers these questions for me soon enough. After spending 90 minutes subverting our expectations of the police and the image of superstar Mammootty, it slaps us in the face with all that and more in the remaining 20 minutes.

Unda’s climax is a series of scenes paying homage to the ego of the superstar. Mammooty has shed his faux nice-man-skin and is cheering on his comrades as they viciously beat up a politician’s gundas in the name of doing their duty. He steps into action himself when one of his colleagues is cornered. And, just like that, this unassuming man has turned into a superhuman fighting machine. Complete lack of experience be damned.

If there was a lesson to be learnt in choosing dialogue over violence, it is lost in the raucous end.

Unda could have easily been satire. Bullets in the hands of frightened men who don’t know how to shoot is a striking commentary on the behavioural expectations we place on men.

Instead, the film is like a woke boy who says all the right things but practices the opposite in life.

If you want to watch a film that shows men play against type, watch Unda. Just pretend it abruptly ends at the 2-hour mark.