Odiyan was one of the most anticipated Malayalam releases of 2018 with Mohanlal playing the lead. Pictures of him having undergone a “transformation” for becoming an odiyan in the the movie had sparked a lot of interest on social media, earlier this year. But the film does not keep up to any of its ‘magical’ promises.
Odiyan is another “Mohanlal-film” on the lines of Aaram Thampuran or Narasimham where the feudal Nair hero is wrongly accused or humiliated and returns to seek revenge and get his village justice. But what could have set the film apart was if the director explored the angle of an outcast, ‘lower’ caste hero and his narrative. The film follows a unidimensional plot line of the jealousy of Ravunni Nair. It doesn’t try to tell a more layered narrative of the odiyan’s existence on the margins of the village, marked by caste and untouchability. Ravunni Nair, the ‘evil’ villain of the tale is dark-skinned and the audience is constantly reminded of the “blackness” of his skin and soul that makes him a bad person. There are many racist references to his skin colour in the film where he is called or referred to as “karumban Nair”( black Nair), as supposed evidence to his evil. In that sense, the film contradicts its central narrative of the Odiyan, who has been wronged and humiliated, with it’s own racist references.
According to popular lore, an ‘odiyan’ — known as the ‘king of darkness and fear’ — is a shape-shifting human who wields immense magical powers. They are said to have the power to transform their shape and body into various animals like bulls, oxen, bats and even elephants. The lores suggest that odiyans can be hired by humans to threaten and scare adversaries.
Odiyan, directed by VA Shrikumar Menon and written and scripted by Harikrishnan, narrates the tale humiliation and power, love and lust and, most importantly, revenge. The key players in this tale are Manickyan Odiyan (Mohanlal), the last odiyan in his village, and Ravunni Nair (Prakash Raj), a lustful evil feudal lord.
The film opens with Manickyan Odiyan returning to his village Thenkurissi from Varanasi and being challenged by the young comrades in the village for an odi (the act of creating fear that the odiyan performs) at the village square.
The rest of the film unravels as a non-linear narrative through remembrances of villagers and later suddenly shifts to Odiyan’s own memories to narrate the circumstances in which he had to leave Thenkurissi 15 years ago. We learn that Odiyan was childhood friends with Prabha (Manju Warrier), an upper-caste Nair girl, and her blind sister Meenakshi (Sana Althaf). Their mura chekkan (cousin) Ravunni Nair is evil even as a child and hates their proximity from childhood. He lusts for Prabha and even Meenakshi and does many evil deeds which include murdering Prabha’s and Meenakshi’s husbands to make Prabha his own against her wishes. Odiyan, who always acts as the guardian angel of Prabha’s house, is falsely accused of murder. Even Prabha, the only person who loves him other than his grandfather Muthappan, starts to hate him and Odiyan subsequently leaves the village.
The act of odi, which is supposed to be a coming together of magic and the physical powers of the Odiyan, falls flat after the first time. The repeated odi scenes do not add up to a spectacle of fear. Magic looks like an afterthought in a film about a magical person.
For the audience who is there for Mohanlal, it could be a disappointment as the script doesn’t offer anything much for the actor to do other than appearing for what seems like a never-ending fancy-dress competition. Except the trademark Mohanlal mannerisms — which make itself apparent in the way he throws a blanket around himself with a flourish or steels his gaze while resolving to avenge atrocities — the actor fails to bring in the wave of drama a film like this requires. The same goes for other actors in the film, whose dramatic dialogues look as if they are delivered unconvincingly.
This story has been updated to correct the name of Odiyan’s scriptwriter.