In the simplest of terms, one can label the legendary figure of Kerala folklore, Kayamkulam Kochunni as a local Robin hood of sorts. However, given the context of social structure of that times, he is much more than that. Here is a young Muslim man who is considered a deity in one of the Hindu temple in Kerala to this day. A Muslim who learned the martial art form of Kalari at a time when it was not exactly thought to ‘outsiders’. And a man who from whatever we know of him, stood for the lower caste and oppressed while taking on the rich and the upper strata of the society. A man who was eventually betrayed by his own men for a few pieces of gold. In short, a man who has a story that has all the makings of an epic.
And yet, direct Rosshan Andrews attempt at giving this legendary figure a fitting movie adaptation proves to an underwhelming one.
Kayamkulam Kochunni narrates the tale of Kochunni (Nivin Pauly), a young chap with a heart of gold and a do-gooder. He flees from home when his father is caught for stealing and seeks to live an honest life. He takes up the job with a Tamil Brahmin as a storekeeper for his livelihood.
There is also the whole episode of him wanting to learn the art form of Kalari which makes him seek out a local teacher Thangal (Babu Anthony) who initially refuses to teach him. However, the determined man ends up learning the art by hiding on a treetop and watching the classes closely after dusk. When he is eventually sniffed out, the master is impressed at the man and his skills he has picked up.
The turn of events comes in when Kochunni stumbles upon some treasure which he duly informs the high priests of the village. However instead of being rewarded, they frame him once they get their hand on the loot and brands Kochunni as a thief and leave him out to die.
And he would have died, had it not been for the timely entry of a famed thief by the name of Ithikkara Pakki (the hyped cameo from Mohanlal). He comes in to save the central character and the film just in time. Pakki inspires a crushed Kochunni to stand again on his feet and fight back at the privileged few who cheated and framed him a criminal.
Thus, Kochunni becomes gradually Kayamkulam Kochunni, the feared thief whose name is enough to send shudders down the spine of the elite, while ensuring he does his bit for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Sure, all of it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as much of the screenplay is about creative cinematic liberties. Kochunni has already made it to the big screens once in the sixties, with Sathyan playing the role of the infamous thief. And even in recent past, the stories made its way into our living rooms in the form of a televised series. And now with a budget of supposedly 45 crore, director Rosshan Andrews takes a shot at it.
Bobby-Sanjay, the writing duo, who has been the backbone of some of Andrews’ finest works fails to really bring out the distinctive epic materials that the script required. Instead taking inspiration from a basic Amar Chitra version of the character, the screenplay also goes about ticking off some basic events of Kochunni’s life without really bothering with the whys and hows. We never really get into the emotional psyche of the man, and as a result, we are not really engaged with the central character. The screenplay basically misses all the emotional beats making us disconnected with Kochunni’s victories or setbacks.
This is only made worse with the portrayal of the character by lead man Nivin Pauly. For starters, his approach to what could have been the role of a lifetime is extremely disappointing. He never looks comfortable in the part and does not really come off well in the transformation from the boy next door to the much-dreaded thief in town. His failure to become the character, mentally or physically turns to be the biggest bane of the project.
In fact, Mohanlal, even in his fifteen minutes, puts in much more effort with mannerisms and body language to give his character of Ithikkara Pakki, the much-needed distinction. So much for a tale of a thief, when the veteran in his 20 minute appearance ends up stealing the thunder. Yes, Pakki does look like a character from belonged in another film, with the costume and the western BGM. But no one would complain about authenticity there, because his scenes were the better portions of the movie. Wish Andrews and Nivin put in as much effort to the titular character.
Priya Anand also turns out to be another case of wrong casting. She does not look the part and is seen struggling with her lines. Of the supporting cast, the ones that does shine are Sunny Wayne and Babu Anthony. Director Jude Anthony also do well in a brief sequence. The rest of the lot, including the extras and the foreign actors, all seem over the top and appear too amateurish. It has always been a recurring problem in the historical / period dramas and the same issues continue here too. There is that sense of artificialness that makes you detached from the period setting and giving you the feeling that instead you are witnessing a school play.
The movie makes room every now and then to voice the social issues of the times with a commentary on the prevalent caste structure of the times. Add to that the presence of the British. However the dialogues are poor, including one hilarious line mouthed by one of the English characters who goes “ He is your race, he is your case!” . In fact, the whole British portions have no impact on the proceedings and seem just fillers with no real implications. The item number from Nora Fatehi also comes across as an unnecessary addition.
On the positive side, one needs to applaud the makers in spending the time and effort in recreating the settings. Sunil Babu’s production design and the cinematography by Binod Pradhan and Nirav Shah are definitely the major plus factors of this expensive venture. Gopi Sundar’s music is decent but it needed more folkish touch. Which is why he ends up creating a better impact with the background score and folk songs towards the end.
All in all, the movie is an amalgamation of several wrong choices that takes away the authenticity and works against the mood and feel of the movie. Something that no technical prowess is going to change or conceal. In its safe commercial avatar, Kayamkulam Kochunni turns out as an average venture that robs the audience from having something memorable or path breaking.
Cast : Navin Pauly, Priya Anand, Sunny Wayne, Babu Anthony and Mohanlal
Directed by Rosshan Andrews
Music Gopi Sundar