Imaginative, humorous storytelling in Abrid Shine's 'Mahaveeryar'

Abrid Shine impressively weaves multiple genres through two stories with varying tones

author_img Sajin Shrijith Published :  22nd July 2022 05:37 PM   |   Published :   |  22nd July 2022 05:37 PM
A still from the film 'Mahaveeryar'

A still from the film 'Mahaveeryar'

I don’t believe anyone in contemporary Malayalam cinema is as audacious as Abrid Shine, and I don’t think it’s too early to say this. The filmmaker has by now built a body of work that makes one ask: Who experiments with multiple genres the way he does now? For me, he is to Malayalam cinema what Steven Soderbergh is to Hollywood. I say so because both have the gift to execute their—or their writers’—ideas on a smaller scale without making it seem so.

Save for his last feature Kung Fu Master, in which authentic fight scenes took precedence over everything else, Abrid has always been about the storytelling. Even a film like Poomaram, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is powered by innovative storytelling even though it may seem like there isn’t any. Even his weakest film—for me, it’s Kung Fu Master—had positive aspects. I’ve never left an Abrid Shine film feeling completely disappointed. His latest, Mahaveeryar, once again finds him at his most imaginative.

Watching Mahaveeryar, based on a story by M Mukundan, felt like being back in English literature class—minus the post-reading discussion, of course. The exhilaration one feels can be likened to that one experiences after browsing through Amar Chithra Katha adventures. It also carries the flavour of the magical realist and surrealist folktales of AK Ramanujam or anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Enrique Vila-Matas. Your appreciation of Mahaveeryar will depend on whether absurdist fiction is your cup of tea or not. But the one primary advantage Mahaveeryar has is that it doesn’t go to the hyper-eccentric lengths to which something like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Double Barrel (which I enjoyed too) went. The mood and scale are in the vein of LJP’s Amen, Padmarajan’s Njan Gandharvan, Bharathan’s Vaisali, Rajiv Anchal’s Guru, or Amol Palekar’s Paheli.

I don’t believe anyone in contemporary Malayalam cinema is as audacious as Abrid Shine, and I don’t think it’s too early to say this. The filmmaker has by now built a body of work that makes one ask: Who experiments with multiple genres the way he does now? For me, he is to Malayalam cinema what Steven Soderbergh is to Hollywood. I say so because both have the gift to execute their—or their writers’—ideas on a smaller scale without making it seem so.

Save for his last feature Kung Fu Master, in which authentic fight scenes took precedence over everything else, Abrid has always been about the storytelling. Even a film like Poomaram, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is powered by innovative storytelling even though it may seem like there isn’t any. Even his weakest film—for me, it’s Kung Fu Master—had positive aspects. I’ve never left an Abrid Shine film feeling completely disappointed. His latest, Mahaveeryar, once again finds him at his most imaginative.

Watching Mahaveeryar, based on a story by M Mukundan, felt like being back in English literature class—minus the post-reading discussion, of course. The exhilaration one feels can be likened to that one experiences after browsing through Amar Chithra Katha adventures. It also carries the flavour of the magical realist and surrealist folktales of AK Ramanujam or anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Enrique Vila-Matas. Your appreciation of Mahaveeryar will depend on whether absurdist fiction is your cup of tea or not. But the one primary advantage Mahaveeryar has is that it doesn’t go to the hyper-eccentric lengths to which something like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Double Barrel (which I enjoyed too) went. The mood and scale are in the vein of LJP’s Amen, Padmarajan’s Njan Gandharvan, Bharathan’s Vaisali, Rajiv Anchal’s Guru, or Amol Palekar’s Paheli.

while ago, Vineeth Sreenivasan gave us Hridayam, which felt like watching two movies in one. Mahaveeryar, too, functions along similar lines in that we get two disparate stories—one pre-interval and the other post—with the only commonalities being a few characters. What starts as a simple robbery tale involving Nivin Pauly’s Apoornanandan Swami eventually transitions into a time-travel fantasy by the interval. In Mahaveeryar’s proceedings, we find a battle between the logical and mystical without bombarding us with the incomprehensible technicalities that usually accompany stories of the same ilk. Everything is palatable for a layman because, ultimately, Mahaveeryar is a procedural that seeks solutions to two different cases —the latter more bizarre than the former—in the same court.  

Abrid impressively weaves multiple genres through two stories with varying tones. This dichotomy is also present with regard to the characters of Nivin and Asif. While the former is prominent with the verbal heroics in the first story, the latter gets to shine with the physical in the second. Mahaveeryar finds both actors at their most restrained, despite occasionally having to mouth dialogues peppered with a fair amount of tongue-twisters. Nivin’s character comes armed with a fair amount of mystery, and there is a suggestion that he could be someone who lived through many centuries and amassed a vast wealth of knowledge on all topics under the sun. Asif’s character moves through a different take on the Rashomon-style narrative, where three characters present their version of how certain events played out. (Recently, Ridley Scott succeeded with a similar format in The Last Duel.)

The relative seriousness of the post-interval segments is evened out by accommodating a few instances of humour. For the most part, Mahaveeryar is a hilarious courtroom drama —the funniest I’ve seen since My Cousin Vinny (1991). When Lal, who plays a king from another time, enters the picture, the film juggles both worlds and various genres. And it doesn’t give the characters much time to ponder the technicalities of it all, which I found refreshing and amusing. They treat it as though such an extraordinary event isn’t new to them.

So far, I haven’t mentioned any revelatory plot details, and I see no reason to deviate from that in this or the following paragraph either. Instead, I would use that space to comment on another remarkable aspect of Mahaveeryar—how it makes every audience member feel like they’re part of the movie, achieved mainly by the excellent use of reaction shots, which is a rarity in Indian films these days. Abrid derives much of the humour from fantastic veterans like Siddique, Lalu Alex and Lal, who deliver some of their career-best work in Mahaveeryar. 

Nivin, Asif, and Shanvi Srivastava fit comfortably in the material and give us solid performances. But it’s the veterans who, I felt, overshadowed the younger ones. They give us multiple rib-tickling moments. There is a scene in the third act where Siddique accomplishes something that can be called the equivalent of Jagathy Sreekumar’s navarasa moment in Udayananu Thaaram. In another scene, a hair-related joke involving Siddique, Lalu Alex and Mallika Sukumaran feels so meta. It compels one to ask, ‘Is this really happening?’—in a good way, of course—and then one remembers that it’s an Abrid Shine film. Anything is possible.

I mentioned earlier Mahaveeryar’s invisible minimalism. Abrid and team achieve the feel of an epic through costumes, actual locations, set design, music, and photography. The music and costumes possess a noticeably North Indian influence, and I feel that alone should guarantee pan-Indian attention for the film. Mahaveeryar works not only because of its otherwordly vibe but also its ability to make us invested in whatever is happening on screen. After the movie ended, someone sitting next to me remarked that they felt the time fly by so fast. I concur.

Film: Mahaveeryar
Director: Abrid Shine
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Asif Ali, Shanvi Srivastava, Lal, Siddique, Lalu Alex
Rating: 4/5

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