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Michael Corleone in Mattancherry

An Appreciation of the Malayalam Film “Bheeshmaparvam”

In “Bheeshmaparvam,” Amal Neerad has created a brilliant film about family, betrayal and retribution, reminding us often of Godfather, and the lesser Bollywood classics, Nayakan and Sarkar. It is the story of the head of a powerful family, who has great empathy with people and finds solutions to their problems. The reference is to Bheeshma, the patriarch of the Indian epic, Mahabharat, lying on his bed of arrows and brooding on his existential dilemma. Mammooty’s portrayal of Michael is brilliant.

Michael, the third son of the Anjootti family, is feared because of his gory past with many murders to avenge the death of his brother Paily and his friend Ali. He became the head of the family after the end of Paily. Paily’s wife, Fathima, married Ali and had to leave the Anjootti family house with her sons Ajas and Ami, much against the wishes of Michael because of opposition from the rest of the family.

Michael’s iron control of the family affairs causes resentment in his brothers and their children. He allows Ami to use a godown for his cafe business, which enrages his nephews Peter and Paul. He warns Martin, his sister’s wayward husband, of the consequences if he goes on ill-treating his wife. Michael’s refusal to support the sitting MP, James, creates another enemy. All of this causes the coming together of James, Simon, Peter and Paul to conspire to end Michael’s control of the family. They bring in Rajan, the son of one of Michael’s victims from Bombay, where he has criminal connections. They hatch a conspiracy to murder Ami because of the love affair between Ami and Martin’s daughter Rachel, which had Michael’s blessing.

Michael learns of the conspiracy behind Ami’s death and allows Ajas to kill Peter. In a brutal attack on Michael by a gang of thugs controlled by Rajan, he is seriously injured and loses his enforcer Shivankutty. In the hospital, Michael realizes that Martin had conspired with Rajan’s father to murder Paily and that he was the most dangerous man in the family. Michael decides to act against the enemies of the family.

Ajas kills Martin by hitting his car with a truck on Michael’s instructions. A file containing information on James’s corrupt financial deal is passed on to the CBI, which arrests James. Rajan was then executed on order from another goon of Bombay, a friend of Michael. Michael thus gains total control of the family.

The first shot itself establishes the ‘period’ nature of the film. On the road cutting diagonally through the vast flooded paddy fields, an autorickshaw plies, carrying the driver and two women on their way to make a representation to Michael. The driver’s monologue gets us glimpses of the hero, Michael. The beginning of the film, where Michael gives the audience to the women harassed by a powerful family while everyone is waiting for a family event, is a nod to Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’. A timely tribute because Coppola’s film is 50 years old.

From the beginning, the film sets a balanced and engaging pace, even as it establishes the characters, their backgrounds and their place in the family organically. The photography cleverly stresses the grayish tone, again compelling us to imagine the movie happening in a distant past. Michael’s control of a family full of good-for-nothing members is reminiscent of Michael Corleone taking control of the family after his father’s death.

Mammooty impresses as the invincible hero through his brooding aura and a robust dialogue. He has aged with grace and dignity.

The film excels on the technical side. Anend Chandran’s photography captures the atmosphere of the film. The story’s background is conveyed to the viewers using cuttings from old newspapers. Image flicker, fluctuations in image intensity, black scratches and bright lines are used to simulate the old-world atmosphere. The slow pace and lingering shots give the viewer leisure to assimilate the scene and its historical context and endow the film’s texture.

Bheeshmaparvam travels back into the Kochi of the 1980s. Art director Joseph Nellikkal’s costumes and stage setting creates an authentic sense of the period of the film. He deftly deploys a Rajdoot motorcycle, a Land Cruiser strutting around like a hero, and a Benz to lend a class to the villain’s entry.

The action choreography is quite stylish. Sushin Shyam’s pulsating music enhances the feel of what is going on. Watching Nedumudi Venu and KPAC Lalitha as Rajan’s grandparents lost in brooding vengeance was a great experience.

More than a crime and retribution story, Bheeshma tells the story of family and its survival against forces both from within and outside, present and past. Despite Mammooty’s dominating presence, Amal Neerad allows other characters their space in the telling of the story. A surprise is the convincing portrayal of a complex character with suppressed grief by Soubin Shahir. The pace is leisurely, enabling the complex story with many characters to unfold correctly.

Amal Neerad came onto the Malayalam movie scene in 2007 with Big B, with Mammootty playing the role of Bilal John Kurisingal. His training with Ram Gopal Varma as a cinematographer enabled him to create a unique visual style of film making. Big B became a cult film overnight for its technical excellence and unique narrative style.

Creating an aura of power about a person can be subtly accomplished by showing the potential for action rather than explicit action. For example, in Bheeshmaparvam, Mammootty projects a foreboding menace and is seen sitting at his table most of the time. Yet, at no point do we get a sense that he is without power, even when he lies unconscious in the hospital.

Bheeshmaparvam is a period film that competently projects a historical atmosphere, and convincingly “transports an audience into the world of the film.”

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