Unda (2019)

Before I get to the stunning details that make ‘Unda’ a wholesome entertainer, I would like to appreciate the choice of storyline that director Khalid Rahman decided to base his second film on. ‘Unda’ is vastly different from his first film (‘Anuraga Karikkin Vellam’), and in my opinion, several notches above it in terms of storytelling. Khalid (supported by screenwriter Harshad) sets his story in a sparsely populated, partly forested, Maoist-prone village in the state of Chhattisgarh, where a bunch of police officers from Kerala have been stationed for overseeing the elections.

Manikandan (Mammootty, sans the machismo) is leading a pack of 7-8 officers and sets up camp in a classroom-turned-poll booth. The surrounding area is said to be a Maoist hub and attacks can occur at any time, according to ITBP officer Kapil Dev (an intimidating-at-first-but-fun Bhagwan Tiwari) who accompanies the team. While this storyline may sound befitting a moody thriller, ‘Unda’ turns out to be the exact opposite. It tickles your funny bone during the entirety of its run-time, courtesy the engaging banter and camaraderie between the young officers. Another striking feat that ‘Unda’ achieves is gracefully bringing back the Mammootty we all (still) adore, in a restrained act that viewers will hold close to their hearts for years to come. As Mani, he completely sheds his superstar skin, and portrays an aging officer who’s struggling to muster up courage in holding the team together, to great effect.

Now, onto the smaller but utterly significant details. Prashant Pillai comes up with an atmospheric score, quaintly reflecting the impending danger that lurks in the vicinity but keeping things upbeat during the somewhat formulaic climax set-piece. While the core plot is straightforward and the writer/director sticks to it for the most part, he also gives each cop character a fair bit of texture. HDR Jojo (Shine Tom) is in the midst of a divorce; PC Gireesh (Arjun Ashokan) is about to get married; PC Varghese (Jacob Gregory) is self-absorbed and clumsy at times; PC Aji Peter (Rony David) is having a bit of a beef with Gireesh, the details of which are revealed later on; PC Biju (Lukman) is the recipient of a joke regarding his tribal ancestry every now and then by PC Unni (Abhiram); PC Noushad (Noushad) wants to become an actor one day; and PC Gokulan (Gokulan) is about to become a father shortly. It’s brilliant how Khalid and Harshad embed these individual stories within the larger picture while reminding us of the core element that binds all of them together – their duties as cops.

Equally remarkable is the way Khalid puts forward certain notions without being politically aggressive – for instance, the rural poor (in the area) struggling to hold on to their pieces of ancestral land. Biju understands and feels for their plight the most and we clearly understand why without even having to explain. The writing is excellent here, and that shows. Also, towards the dire end of the movie, the team realize who the real ‘Maoists’ are and whether the ‘ammunition’, expected to arrive as reinforcements earlier, was indeed necessary to brush aside their hurdles.

The film is not without its share of flaws. The somewhat-overblown climax sequence is a stark contrast from everything that precedes but it was gratifying on the whole. Also, a side-track involving two cops played by Asif Ali and Vinay Forrt doesn’t get proper closure. ‘Unda’ does lack the presence of a strong female character as well, and while the story doesn’t really demand one, it would have probably added an extra layer of adoration to Manikandan if more of his conversations with Lalitha (Easwari Rao) had been shown on-screen.

‘Unda’ is the kind of film that warrants repeated viewing not only for its dark and situational hilarity but also for its notable subtext and the authenticity that the director strives to maintain. 2019 continues to be a shining year for Malayalam cinema – ‘Ishq’, ‘Virus’, ‘Thottappan’, and ‘Thamasha’ have already won our hearts, and here’s one more to add to that list.

Rating: 3.75/5

Review by arungeorge13

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