At times the human mind does play around with us quite a bit, or else how can we easily account for fantasies, fetishes and all sort of (weird?) desires that we come across or think of from time to time. There are some characters whom we encounter or hear about, who seem to revel in following a slightly convoluted path towards achieving satisfaction on various levels. Popular writer-director Ranjith‘s latest Malayalam film Leela talks about one such interesting character, Kuttiyappan. Ranjith has always been one of the few filmmakers who have managed to maintain a fine balance between art and commerce, as seen by a majority of his films. But it’s also true that he hasn’t really been in form of late, with his previous film Loham being especially disappointing. Leela also sees him play the producer, a role that he takes upon from time to time and not for all his films.
Ever since Leela was announced a few years ago the project has been in the news. To start with, it was a movie adaptation of Unni.R‘s popular Malayalam short story of the same name which was being worked upon for the big screen by Unni.R himself. Incidentally this is only the second instance of Ranjith turning to someone else’s writing for a film of his, the previous occasion being Kaiyoppu (2007) which was written by Ambikasuthan Mangad. For a long time it wasn’t sure as to who would be playing the main character of Kuttiyappan in the film, casting a doubt on whether the film would actually get made or not. The various choices for the role of Kuttiyappan included Mammootty, Mohanlal and Shankar Ramakrishnan, keeping the viewers guessing as to who would eventually end up playing the iconic character. Finally the film did go on the floors as the role went to Biju Menon, a wise decision one would say after watching the film.
The tale revolves around Kuttiyappan, a wealthy carefree individual who goes about living life on his terms. Kuttiyappan enjoys his life to the fullest and isn’t quite the one to be bothered about what people would say about his antics. He keeps moving around and enjoys the company of good food, booze and women in no particular order. His constant companion is Pillechan (Vijayaraghavan) who is there besides him on all his escapades. Pillechan is the father of a teenage girl and married to a school teacher and is quite a character in contrast to Kuttiyappan, yet they share an interesting bond among themselves. Dasappappi (Indrans), a pimp is the other companion who usually moves around with Kuttiyappan and Pillechan. All of a sudden Kuttiyappan expresses his desire to hire an elephant and thus sets out looking out for one along with Pillechan and Dasappappi . On the way they pick up a young girl (Parvathy Nambiar) with a traumatic past who is rechristened as Leela by Kuttiyappan. Leela’s father Thankappan Nair (Jagadeesh) completes the group.Their pursuit for an elephant leads them to the hill ranges of Wayanad where eventually the mystery behind Kuttiyappan’s desire to hire an elephant and pick up Leela is revealed.
Unni.R has gone on to make suitable changes to the overall concept in the process of converting his short story into the screenplay for the film. But despite the changes the basic plot remains more or less the same, Kuttiyappan comes across as a bizarre yet interesting character with a lot of quirkiness in him. At the very beginning we see Dasappappi introducing C.K. Bindu (Priyanka Nair) to Kuttiyappan, no prizes for guessing why she has been brought over there. While some of us might expect an erotic encounter to follow, what happens instead is something totally bizarre as Kuttiyappan pretends to be a dead body and insists that Bindu cry, leading to an emotional moment as she actually breaks down by remembering her dead father. This is a scene which clearly sets the tone for the rest of the film. Though Ranjith and Unni.R are a little handicapped over here in terms of not being able to go the whole distance as in case of the short story, there is still enough to suggest the underlying quirkiness to the tale and the characters, particularly that of Kuttiyappan.
Prashanth Ravindran‘s cinematography is impressive and Bijibal‘s music is quite effective. The traditional song ‘Vattolam Vaniyare’ sung by Biju Menon himself is already quite popular as it highlights the town of Kottayam in characteristic fashion. Manoj Kannoth‘s editing leaves the film with a tight finish and with a run time of just 101 minutes, it makes you ask for more. The film also has a old worldly charm thanks to the kind of locations utilised. At the same time it pushes across a few pertinent questions like when Kuttiyappan is exulting in the glory of having paraded a group of former sex workers in public on the pretext of felicitating them, Chengalam Omana (Santhakumari) sharply reminds that his rejoicing is not going to last long after all he needs to keep in mind that his inflated masculinity is as temporary as an orgasm is. There are shades of the Padmarajan classic Thoovanathumbikal as well as I.V.Sasi‘s Devasuram (written by Ranjith incidentally) in Leela, but the references aren’t overbearing. The brutally violent and abrupt culmination to the film is sure to raise questions, and one might agree or disagree with the same depending on how you perceive it but whatever be it I’m sure that it would leave a lasting impact on you.
The ingenuity of Kuttiyappan comes across as he rides a horse at night after a round of drinks, passing the cops along the way who are as usual doing a check for drunk driving. There are quite a few such moments in the film which makes one chuckle along the way. Despite the rather radical thought expressed by the film, thankfully it’s not completely a bizarre tale that one cannot relate to. For this the credit goes not only to Ranjith and Unni.R but also to all the actors who’ve performed in the film, the casting choices having turned out excellently. Parvathy Nambiar is effective as Leela and makes an impression despite having no dialogues, Indrans leaves an impact once again and Jagadeesh as Thankappan Nair, the perverted father of Leela is a revelation in a role that’s very different from his usual work. Vijayaraghavan delivers one of his career best performances as Pillechan, his body language, dialogue delivery and mannerisms are a treat to watch. Biju Menon as Kuttiyappan is a natural and sparkles in almost every frame, be it with his interactions with Pillechan and Dasappappi or with the various women. This is easily an interesting phase in Biju’s career where he is getting to play interesting main leads as seen in films like Vellimoonga, Salt Mango Tree and now Leela.
Eventually Leela comes across as a mix of the weird and the entertaining, and it’s a film that is quite gutsy in its own way. One can keep debating on what Ranjith and Unni.R did and did not do, whether the film could have turned out better or not, but then the very fact that people would talk about it is indicative of a victory in a way. Leela isn’t quite the best from Ranjith, he’s far more capable for sure, but this is a step in the right direction, assuming that he wouldn’t like to go back to making films like Loham or Kadal Kadannu Oru Maathukutty .