There are not many instances when a meaningful work in literature gains a greater magnitude when it traverses across art forms. The challenges that T P Rajeevan's novel Palery Manickyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha poses before a film maker who endeavours to adapt it to the silver screen are tremendous.
The year is 1957 and with the state witness to a political upheaval, a twenty year old girl is found hanging in front of her hut in a small hamlet by the name of Palery in North Kerala. Several decades after the accused have been let off scot-free by a local court, Haridas, a private detective (Mammootty) and Sarayu, a crime analyst (Gauri Manjal) join hands to probe into the crime again.
Palery Manickyam offers an extremely complex narrative and time and again the writer forcefully drags us back to where we had started off. The entire process is as cumbersome to the reader or in this particular case the viewer, as it is for the chief protagonist. However the desire to get to the bottom of it all outweighs the lingering pessimism and we hang on right till the end, with certainly no hope that the answers that we seek are round the corner or that the mystery that perplexes us beyond our wits would unfurl ever so gradually before us.
Ranjith is a dynamic director in that he has continually broken down the rusty conventions that have almost corroded the core of Malayalam cinema. For one, the frankness that pervades this film of his is almost foreign to the average viewer. I am sure this candour might be interpreted in several ways by the torch bearers of morality; perhaps as brazenness, or as apathy, as an imposed disregard for norms or even as pseudo intellectualism. Alternatively it could plainly mean a refreshing audacity that never for a moment bows down before conformist expectations.
Haridas for instance, shares a few days of his life and a bed with Sarayu, and they together embark on this strange expedition to get to the bottom of the Manickyam murder. It doesn't really impede them that they happen to lead distinct lives or that they have been apart for a while. Hari does talk about his family, and so does Sarayu who talks of Gautham who has almost vanished from her life. Yet, they are together for the moment for a purpose, with no questions raised and no answers demanded.
The air permeates with the smell of raw sex throughout. In easily one of the most striking scenes of seduction in recent times, Cheeru (Shwetha Menon) lets go of her hesitation and succumbs before Ahmed Haji (Mammootty), hopelessly charmed by his authority. She soon has the village men dancing to her whims after her husband passes away. Years later, Haji roams about with an insatiable libido, Cheeru stands on the threshold of a new life beyond sex. And Manickyam with dreams writ large on her eyes gets brutally raped and murdered.
Or there is S K Pallippuram, that remarkable actor who had staged a drama the night Manickyam was murdered. We see him in a drunken stupor the first time, vehemently verbal and downright blunt. The second time though, he has mellowed down a bit, and almost offers an apology for all that he had said.
Rajeevan is at his best when he cautiously crafts each of his characters paying utmost attention to the finest details, whether it be K P Hamsa, the Communist leader who refuses to reveal that dark secret that he houses within, or Keshavan who loudly proclaims that he is neither a believer nor a communist, but just a hairdresser. The writer fuses a crisp social commentary with several sub levels of multi character analyses in this dark tale.
The episodic and not always linear script effortlessly merges with the visual sense of the director to create a magical imagery of sorts. The night of the murder as the whole village scurries to watch the drama being staged, Haridas walks towards us brushing shoulders with them, talking to us about Manickyam who has been left alone. A few scenes later, as Manickyam's corpse is being carried away across the river for autopsy, we get to see another canoe heading towards the shore, with a beaming Manickyam beside her groom all eager to start her new life at Palery, barely ten days back.
Palery Manickyam could easily boast of its remarkable cast that has none of the big names in business, barring a few. The film brings to the forefront a bevy of real talented actors from theatre, and resourcefully draws out astonishing performances from all of them. Leading this cast is none other than Mammootty himself who puts in a hypnotic act as Ahmed Haji, yet another pitch perfect feat from the actor this year. Equally proficient is the incomparable Shwetha Menon who is gradually carving a niche for herself with daring performances in markedly different films.
Ranjith's Manickyam is a rarity of a film that exceeds expectations and offers a psychedelic high for the viewer. There would be no surprise if it ignites some sort of a controversy for the boldness that it displays. For the discerning viewer though, this might perhaps be one of the best films to have come out this year.
I would refuse to attribute the art house flavour to it. Rather, it's an uncompromising film that grabs you by your throat and simply refuses to let go.