“Odiyan”… A superb conceit botched by flabby writing and a frustrating lack of focus

Posted on December 17, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

How do you reveal a man of mystery? In Odiyan, director VA Shrikumar Menon plunges us into the waters of Benares. A woman has had an accident, and is in danger of drowning. Cut to a portly male on a boat, who dives in and stages a rescue. As he rises from the waters, the woman in his arms, the director asks us to absorb every second. It’s all in slow motion. A little later, the woman recognises the man to be a black magician capable of shape-shifting, an odiyan. As she utters the word, temple bells chime madly. It’s a character-introduction shot. It’s also a hero-introduction shot. (Mohanlal plays the odiyan, named Manikyan.) We are now free to move on to the credits, and then to the story. But the director and the writer (Harikrishnan) have other ideas. They take us to the village of Thenkurissi, where we get another character-introduction shot, another slo-mo hero-introduction shot.

There are many problems with Odiyan, but none more than the flabby, unfocused screenplay. All we get is a series of conceits, which, admittedly, are superb. Take, for instance, the theme of darkness. Manikyan practises his trade (scaring people) under the cover of darkness. His nemesis, Ravunni Nair (Prakash Raj, stuck in an ill-defined character), is so evil that his blackened skin reflects the darkness in his heart. Then, we have the visually impaired Meenakshi (Sana Althaf), whose life unfolds in darkness. Or consider the nature of Manikyan’s “work”. He uses props like what you’d find in a school play, to assume the form of animals. But the terrified victims see him as a supernatural force, due to their fearful mind playing tricks on them. Or is he really supernatural? Isn’t that why he is able to levitate while meditating?

Odiyan should have had us guessing, too, like the victims. It should have pitted superstition against science, the alleged magic of the night versus the arrival of electricity that turns darkness into day. We should have been right inside Manikyan’s mind. Does he consider his powers (if they are indeed powers and not mechanically manufactured stunts) boon or bane? We see him gazing wistfully at his childhood friend Prabha (Manju Warrier), when she gets married to Prakashan (Narain; note that name, and “Prabha”, too, which both connote the opposite of darkness). Was it just caste that came between them, or is it also the fact that Manikyan is doomed to keep wandering about at night? Would it have been possible to stop being an odiyan, for her sake? She seems intrigued — rather than scared — by his abilities. Is it because she knows he won’t hurt her? But then, what does she think about the fact that he scares and robs and sometimes even kills people?

Instead of answering these questions, Odiyan keeps slipping into flashbacks that serve little purpose other than to say “we’ve got a really cool idea at the centre of this story”. Just setting out to make a movie about an odiyan seems to have thrilled the writer and director. It seems to be some kind of long-held dream, the equivalent of going to Paris. They are happy having landed at Charles de Gaulle airport. They don’t seem to want to step out of the terminal and actually get a taste of Paris. The narrative, too, alights on the idea of an odiyan, but refuses to cut any deeper. Sam CS contributes a deafening score that tries to convince us that something monumental is unfolding in front of our eyes, but the dullness never disappears. However loudly you recite the twelve-times table, it’s never going to turn into Shakespeare.

It’s only in the second half that the relationships get established — somewhat — even if the Kondoram song is horribly misplaced. (Had it been in the first half, it would have helped us understand Manikyan and Prabha better.) One of the few moments that works is when Prabha accuses Manikyan of murder. “When you kill someone, you kill an entire family.” But he’s wrongly accused (and we know this, which makes the whodunit angle even more tiresome). He says, “When you accuse an innocent man, you kill him.” Mohanlal and Manju Warrier can play these scenes in their sleep, but it’s always a pleasure to watch a certain kind of well-honed professionalism. Mohanlal uses his eyes a lot. He looks slyer, cockier in the younger portions, and defeated when he ages. You really wish good actors were also good evaluators of screenplays. It’s never a guarantee that a good script will make a good movie, but with the kind of confused writing on display, Odiyan didn’t stand a chance.

The strangest aspect of the film is that the uniqueness of its premise never makes it to the screen, not once. It remains drably generic throughout, even in the stunt sequences. That’s the one area you think they’ll whip up something special, like how even the most yawn-inducing superhero movies perk up during the special effects-driven action stretches. But all we get here is dry leaves being rustled up into the air, people defying gravity when a well-aimed blow lands on them, and endless one-versus-many scenarios. In other words, we seem to be watching a retread of every other “mass” action movie, with little evidence of the “black magic” Manikyan can supposedly unleash. Bad movies are always painful, but the badness of a could-have-been-great movie hurts just a little bit more.

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