In Villain, the Malayalam cop thriller reaches maturity

A long time ago, probably sometime in the 1990s, after watching what I thought was a well-made crime drama or revenge thriller, I asked my father what he thought of it. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember what we had just watched was a slickly written, fast-paced, competently acted, in other words, a movie ahead of its time for in the early 90s Indian film industry. I hoped my father would share my appreciation. My father’s only response was that the movie was amoral. It struck me at the time as an unsatisfactory response. Twenty years later, I now see the argument for social responsibility in the art that is produced and consumed. In a culture (across the world) that is fast debasing itself through social media curated lists, lowest common denominator entertainments, art forms such as cinema, at least in the Indian context, have a responsibility to elevate itself to defend the contingent institutions of the day. This is even more important when the said movie is a mere entertainment.

For several years, probably from the seventies onwards, revenge thrillers and cop action movies in Malayalam (and presumably in all other Indian film industries) have been centered around the lone, brave, idealistic, incorruptible cop who fights against the system made up of corrupt and crooked politicians, policemen and businessmen. But after failing to bring justice within the system, these movies inevitably ended with extra-legal justice. The villains had to be tortured if they were to confess, they had to be killed if they were not to escape to wreak havoc again.

I did not go into the latest Mohanlal movie Villain with great expectations. I wanted to see it because I can watch Mohanlal watching paint dry. He is, after all, the world’s greatest living actor. So I was pleasantly surprised by the integrity displayed by Matthew Manjooran, the cop character Mohanlal plays in the movie. By no accounts is this a great movie. It is a run of the mill thriller with two-dimensional villains and uni-dimensional murders. But in Matthew Manjooran the filmmakers have created a character who understands the burden that society puts on policemen as guardians of law even when the law is a shackle that prevents justice from being done. Matthew is a Shakespeare quoting cop who tells his underling to refrain from torture; a cop who refuses to kill the man who killed his family even when he could plausibly have done so in self-defense; and in the climax a cop who provides a coherent rebuttal to the vigilante murderer taking law into his hands to right the wrongs of society’s villains. When the villain holds forth on his responsibility to clean society of its evils because the “system” failed to do so, Matthew reminds him that such thinking has always led to one man rule and the history of such dictatorships have and continues to be a cruel joke on humanity’s yearning for justice.

When Edmund Burke wrote his profound polemic against the French revolution, it was not only a philosophical treatise against revolutionary violence but also an aesthetic reaction to the brutality that revolutionary violence does to society’s norms. When younger, even as I enjoyed these Hindi and Malayalam revenge sagas, I remember being troubled by the contradiction of living in a rule-based society and the hero worship of those who break the law to deliver justice. It is, therefore, a relief to see at least one movie that challenges these tropes, that stands for the rule of law even when that law is more often breached than followed. My father would have approved.