“Mamangam”… Mammootty stars in a long, meandering anti-war epic that needed far better writing

Posted on December 27, 2019

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Rarely during a movie have I felt so disconnected from the events on screen, so unconcerned about who lives or dies, so filled with memories of ‘Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha’…

Spoilers ahead…

It’s the 17th century. The right to preside over and conduct the Mamangam festival –  held once in 12 years – is a really big deal. It used to rest with the chief of Valluvanad, until it was wrested away by the Zamorin of Calicut. Ever since, during this festival, warriors from Valluvanad have snuck in and attempted to kill the Zamorin. The film calls it a “blood feud”. And there are rules. (1) You have to kill the Zamorin. (2) Or die trying. (3) Escape is not an option. That’s precisely why Chandroth Valiya Panikkar (Mammooty) is held in such contempt by the people of Valluvanad. He didn’t kill the Zamorin. Neither did he die honourably, by the sword. He simply disappeared. And where’s the honour in that?

M Padmakumar’s Mamangam sounds like a rousing wartime epic, but it’s actually a (very long, very meandering) meditation on the futility of war. After the opening stretch where Chandroth Valiya Panikkar springs an attack during the festival, the story moves ahead by 24 years. We are now in Valluvanad, where people still talk about the “bravery” inherent in trying to kill the Zamorin on the occasion of Mamangam. (It isn’t clear why these warriors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, mount an attack any other time. Or maybe I missed it.) The festival is approaching, and two more warriors – Chandroth Panikkar (Unni Mukundan) and 12-year-old Chanthunni (Achuthan) – say they have been told by the goddess (in a dream) that they have to try and regain their land’s honour.

The film is filled with problems, the least of which is the terrible stunt-work. When Mammootty leaps in the air, he seems to exist in his own planet with its own laws of gravity. (He spouts forth from the earth like water out of a Las Vegas fountain.) But then, the action departments of our “epics” – the rare Baahubali aside – rarely possess the epic imagination to put across epic battle scenes. But even if you brush that aside, the generic nature of all departments makes Mamangam an exhausting watch. Rarely during a movie have I felt so disconnected from the events on screen, so unconcerned about who lives or dies, so filled with memories of Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha.

The two films feel so similar, yet couldn’t be more different – and the reason is the most usual of suspects, the writing. The characters in Mamangam are not just one-note, they could be described with the same note: the Valluvanad men are all brave, the Valluvanad women are all sad, the Zamorin’s men are all wily. Chief among the latter is Thalachennor (Siddique), whose entry transforms the film into a Hercule Poirot-style parlour-room interrogation about a murder, which is recounted in Rashomon-style flashbacks. This is the most interesting stylistic device from screenwriter Sajeev Pillai (the adapted screenplay and dialogues are by Shankar Ramakrishnan), but the murdered man is so shabbily sketched out – so tenuously linked to the main storyline – that you wish more time had been devoted to adding flesh and blood to the Valluvanad warriors, who now resemble chalk outlines in a murder scene.

The other (potentially) interesting narrative device is the presence of a transwoman, also played by Mammootty. The actor doesn’t do anything flamboyant, but his eyes are softer, his wrists lighter. With better writing, this could have been a miraculous performance. The episode is a variation of Arjuna in the Virata Parva of the Mahabharata, but all we register about this character is that she likes to paint. Mamangam is another of those films where they do a ton of research but forget to shape all that research into a riveting screenplay. By the end, you may have to think really hard to recall the Muslim who comes to help the Valluvanad warriors on their suicide mission. People come. People go. The effort to make the next Baahubali goes on forever.

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