Kaapa Movie Review: Shaji Kailas's gangster drama is a gritty, faithful adaptation
Kaapa benefits from the imposing presence of Prithviraj, who does adequate justice to writer Indugopan's creation, Kotta Madhu
One of the reasons I'm enamoured by the work of GR Indugopan is the vividness he brings to his scenarios. His stories carry the smell and flavour of the cities where they take place. His characters possess distinct personalities, and the local dialect flows through the pages like poetry. The lightning-fast pacing of his narratives makes it difficult for me to take continuous pauses. I always try to finish them in one sitting.
Director: Shaji Kailas
Cast: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Aparna Balamurali, Asif Ali, Anna Ben
It's been a while since I've read Indugopan's Thiruvananthapuram-set novella Shankumukhi, but the principal characters and events were still fresh in my mind before I set out to the theatre. I wasn't too skeptical about Shaji Kailas directing it, given his experience with a gritty, extremely violent gangster drama in 1997 called Asuravamsham. It's a rarity in his filmography. I was a kid back then, and I remember being disturbed by some of the gory portions in it that grown-ups would more easily digest. But this was a phase where I was familiar with almost the entire filmography of Shaji Kailas. For someone who had at that point only seen the more massy films of the director, something like Asurvavamsham, which differed strongly in tone from his other films, was unexpected. So did Shaji Kailas deliver with Kaapa? That would be a yes!
Here's the thing. For me, it was more important to see the film do justice to Indugopan's story than become an acting exercise. Kaapa is not, after all, trying to be The Godfather or Goodfellas. It's determinedly a commercial entertainer -- the movie more than the book, I would say. It closely follows the source material's plot structure, including the final twists. Of course, we expect some minor 'massy' embellishments, considering this is a big theatrical release fronted by a superstar, Prithviraj, accompanied by three other top names from Malayalam cinema in the lead roles.
But at its core lies the same spirit we found in the notable Ram Gopal Varma films like Satya, Company, Sarkar, or the Vishal Bhardwaj gangster dramas. I'm not saying Kaapa is on par with those films in finesse and craftsmanship. But it's a fairly enjoyable crime adventure thanks to Prithviraj doing full justice to the character, Kotta Madhu, whose physical description differs from the one in the book. But does that really matter when the actor gets the character's essence right?
A ferocious and headstrong character, Kotta Madhu deserved an actor of Prithviraj's stature. Madhu is an imposing man who navigates Indugopan's story with the Damocles's Sword hanging over him every second and minute. He knows what his sins are. You get the sense that he would've done things differently had he been given a chance to live his life differently for the second time. And he comes across as someone willing to accept any punishment for his past transgressions.
This is how Prithviraj plays Kotta Madhu in the film too, and it gets most of my brownie points for getting this portrayal right. He plays him as a man with a tough exterior but tormented by an event that made him the dreaded don that he is today. And we get a brief flashback of this, staged in the film exactly how I imagined it while reading it. It's one of the film's rare emotional high points but done without resorting to melodrama, and one whose after-effects are strongly felt in the present.
As I said earlier, Shaji Kailas and cinematographer Jomon T John stay true to Indugopan's vision. They get the sombre mood of the book right, except, of course, for instances where we get the classic Shaji Kailas moments, some that seem cliched due to our encounter with similar moments in movies we have seen before. Others are welcome because today, we rarely get the massy slo-mo fights or assertive war cries. Like Asuravamsham, it is a Shaji Kailas movie that doesn't look like a Shaji Kailas movie.
That said, I would've loved to see some nuance exercised in the dialogue delivery, particularly with regard to the khaki-clad supporting cast members, who sound like characters from the weaker movies of Shaji Kailas. These are the areas where the film's energy dips, and I wish the makers invested more time to give us something we have not seen before. Remember the shady cop played by Indrans in Malik? How chilling he was in that! I hoped for a similar directing choice here. Also, when there are names like Aparna Balamurali and Anna Ben, you expect them to do more than what we got in Kaapa. A potential sequel might bring in better things: Kaapa ends with the hint of one while not exactly announcing it.
Dileesh Pothan offers no surprises as Latheef, a newspaperman with his own agenda, and Kotta Madhu's rival. However, being the skilled performer he is, Dileesh is admirably effective at selling us Latheef's intentions. He is not the "villain" of this story. In fact, none of the characters in Kaapa can be called black or white. Grey is the dominant colour. There is someone I would call "idealistic," and that's Asif Ali's Anand, a role that the actor pulls off with considerable ease.
If Kaapa is supposed to be a poignant meditation on lives altered by violent events, it doesn't quite succeed in stirring our emotions on a deeper level. But, as a cinematic portrait of a way of life, it does. Some express regrets, but there is no going back from a life of crime. Some bravely forge ahead, trapped forever in the cyclical pattern of violence.