Before I get to the stunning details that make ‘Unda’ a wholesome entertainer, I would like to appreciate the choice of storyline that director Khalid Rahman decided to base his second film on. ‘Unda’ is vastly different from his first film (‘Anuraga Karikkin Vellam’), and in my opinion, several notches above it in terms of storytelling. Khalid (supported by screenwriter Harshad) sets his story in a sparsely populated, partly forested, Maoist-prone village in the state of Chhattisgarh, where a bunch of police officers from Kerala have been stationed for overseeing the elections.
Manikandan (Mammootty, sans the machismo) is leading a pack of 7-8 officers and sets up camp in a classroom-turned-poll booth. ITBP officer Kapil Dev, played by the initially intimidating but eventually amiable Bhagwan Tiwari, asserts that the surrounding area is a Maoist hub, emphasizing the constant threat of potential attacks at any moment while accompanying the team. While this storyline may sound befitting a moody thriller, ‘Unda‘ turns out to be the exact opposite. It tickles your funny bone during the entirety of its run-time, courtesy the engaging banter and camaraderie between the young officers.
Another striking feat that ‘Unda’ achieves is gracefully bringing back the Mammootty we all (still) adore, in a restrained act that viewers will hold close to their hearts for years to come. As Mani, he completely sheds his superstar skin, and portrays an aging officer who’s struggling to muster up courage in holding the team together, to great effect.
Prashant Pillai and the crew…
Now, onto the smaller but utterly significant details. Prashant Pillai comes up with an atmospheric score, quaintly reflecting the impending danger that lurks in the vicinity but keeping things upbeat during the somewhat formulaic climax set-piece. While the core plot is straightforward and the writer/director sticks to it for the most part, he also gives each cop character a fair bit of texture. HDR Jojo (Shine Tom) is in the midst of a divorce; PC Gireesh (Arjun Ashokan) is about to get married; PC Varghese (Jacob Gregory) is self-absorbed and clumsy at times.
Rony David, known as PC Aji Peter, is currently engaged in a conflict with Gireesh, the details of which are disclosed later on. Lukman, also known as PC Biju, frequently receives jokes about his tribal ancestry from Abhiram, known as PC Unni. Noushad, operating as PC Noushad, aspires to become an actor in the future. Additionally, Gokulan, referred to as PC Gokulan, is on the verge of becoming a father soon. Khalid and Harshad skillfully integrate these individual stories into the larger picture, while consistently highlighting the common thread that binds them – their responsibilities as police officers.
Equally remarkable is the way Khalid puts forward certain notions without being politically aggressive – for instance, the rural poor (in the area) struggling to hold on to their pieces of ancestral land. Biju understands and feels for their plight the most and we clearly understand why without even having to explain. The writing is excellent here, and that shows. Also, towards the dire end of the movie, the team realize who the real ‘Maoists’ are and whether the ‘ammunition’, expected to arrive as reinforcements earlier, was indeed necessary to brush aside their hurdles.
The film is not without its share of flaws. The somewhat-overblown climax sequence is a stark contrast from everything that precedes but it was gratifying on the whole. Also, a side-track involving two cops played by Asif Ali and Vinay Forrt doesn’t get proper closure. ‘Unda’ also lacks a strong female character, and although the story may not necessarily require one, showcasing more on-screen conversations between Manikandan and Lalitha (Easwari Rao) could have potentially added an additional layer of admiration for the character.
‘Unda’ is the kind of film that warrants repeated viewing not only for its dark and situational hilarity but also for its notable subtext and the authenticity that the director strives to maintain. 2019 continues to be a shining year for Malayalam cinema – ‘Ishq’, ‘Virus’, ‘Thottappan’, and ‘Thamasha’ have already won our hearts, and here’s one more to add to that list.
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Writer by Profession, Wanderer by Passion.