Readers Write In #77: ‘Lucifer’ and ‘mass’ in Malayalam cinema

Posted on June 10, 2019

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I knew I was an outsider in this group. Lucifer had let them down and a set of colleagues hadn’t recovered from the disappointment. But ever since I watched Prithviraj Sukumaran’s directorial flick, I was desperate to put this out in the open. “I liked Lucifer.” Expectedly, after this simple confession, I faced a volley of questions.

Idenda Tamil cinema aano? (Did I watch a Tamil film?),” one of them scoffed at the action scenes. “Tovino was the saving grace. What else is there in it?” felt another. But the next response, the best one, cracked me up. “We have lost you Vivek. You aren’t the same person anymore.”

So what is Lucifer to me? At the outset, it was good to see Prithviraj — whose recent mild obsession with Hollywood-like thrillers and horror flicks was upsetting — opt for a mass film. It’s given that in these films, our hero is the knight in shining armour. It’s just that to break the monotony, writers, over decades, have tweaked the fixed idea by offering protagonists with shades of grey. He might be a killer but he is someone with a heart of gold.

The characters of Lucifer tell us that the film adopts a cinematic language suited for mass movies. Priyadarshini Ramdas (Manju Warrier) has faltered in her choice of her man. But she is strong enough to fight out her battle. Jathin (Tovino Thomas), only because he is a foreign return and a novice in the world of politics, isn’t arrogant. Jathin is mature and shrewd in equal measure and that’s a great mix. Even someone like Mahesha Varma (Saikumar) has a nice character graph. From an ambitious senior party leader he turns an advisor without choice and then ends up as a desperate survivor.

The great actors that they all are, these artists give us the required tension and build the perfect mood for the main lead to do his final Heroic act. None of these characters behaves the same way and mouth matter-of-factly dialogues. Murali Gopy (writer) oozes class into the mainstream with his dialogues.  And hence, its mass nature notwithstanding, Lucifer isn’t loud.

Early on, it’s brilliant to see how the political scenario in the film is explained with the help of Kerala’s popular identity – God’s Own Country (Daivathinte Swantham Nadu). In a film that talks about the battle between evil and evil, Saikumar gets a cracking dialogue. “You can’t defeat your mighty rival with strength. It requires smartness. Convince him for a stroll next to a railway track and very sly push him on to the track as the speeding train approaches.” Watch the movie to understand the impact of this dialogue and how poor my translation is. The dialogues, very rarely, spoon feed the audience.

He attempts to worship his favourite star (Mohanlal) but Prithviraj, the director, is also serious in his business. This explains my liking to the nods to journalism and feminism in the film. Prithviraj even cares to close out the story of Govardhan (Indrajit) – a man fanatical about secret information.

The sincerity doesn’t end there. Vivek Oberoi appears to be the busiest actor in the country. In Lucifer, despite being the ‘outsider’, he isn’t out of place. He is pushed to deliver a performance and he does. And thankfully the lip sync matches with the dialogues well. The Gopy-Prithviraj combo also shows some guts. They cast one of Malayalam cinema’s biggest superstar but give the massiest scene to a fast-rising star (Tovino’s speech is the scene of the movie!).

So why is there is a strong perception of only Tamil and Telugu industry churning out mass films? Is it because of the humungous fan following for stars who have consistently played larger than life characters? If yes then we know how shallow this observation is.

The biggest talking point in the Malayalam industry in the last decade has been its ‘new generation movement’. The Dulquers, Fahadh Faasils, Nivin Paulys and Tovinos revelled in this new phase of fresh and envious storylines that offered an enriching experience. Films like Lucifer will definitely be embraced in the ‘B’ & ‘C’ centres. But has the urban Malayalam audience decided to cold-shoulder mass films?  Has the ‘new generation’ shut the doors on old-school masala films?

Malayalam cinema always had mass and we need not look beyond the films of Lucifer’s hero to understand this. As Aadu Thoma, in his underwear, Mohanlal thrashed the police officer black and blue and made it look cool in Spadikam. The iconic dialogue in Aaran Thampuran, in which he threatens to unleash his inner beast, can still give goosebumps. These are just a couple of examples from numerous entertaining mass flicks featuring Lal.

In Lucifer, he does justice to Prithviraj’s obsession with slo-mo scenes. His arresting presence remains intact. It’s still mass when he mouths dialogues like “Narcotics is a dirty business” or “The deal is with the devil.” In fact, Mohanlal’s best and moving scenes are with the kids. Here, we get Lal’s trademark effortless performance. It’s hard not to borrow Baradwaj Rangan’s line from his review: Mohanlal is probably the greatest actor who does also does mass roles.

In my excitement, I shouldn’t overlook the obvious flaws. I wish, I so wish the core (story) of Lucifer was stronger and even better. I wished the screenplay was tighter, thereby ensuring a lesser run-time. The placement and not the choice of item song was frustrating.

But are these flaws strong and big enough to turn our backs on mass films like Lucifer? Prithviraj is one actor who has had a taste of both worlds of Malayalam cinema. In Lucifer he tries to offer a ‘new generation’ treatment to a conventional story. Perhaps this is the way forward to keep the charm of mass films alive.

A Malayali friend’s recent query has left me with more questions. “Have you watched Vikram Vedha?”. I said I had. “Is it a mass film? Don’t suggest the film if it’s mass.” “Are you from the new generation brigade?”, I asked. “Yes. Fahadh Faasil…Njan Prakashan…that’s Malayalam cinema for me.” And there I was, wondering about the status of mass in Malayalam cinema.

(by Vivek MV)