Unda Movie Review: Mammootty is outstanding in this genre-defying thriller
As in his brilliant directorial debut, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, Khalid Rahman upends some genre expectations in Unda as well
Unda is about a group of policemen who undertake a perilous mission -- to guard a polling booth in Maoist-affected Chhattisgarh. The film's primary source of conflict comes from the fact that none of these men have ever been part of a mission like this before.
The men-on-a-mission action sub-genre, which Unda belongs to, has spawned several veritable Hollywood classics like The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, and Inglorious Basterds. These films usually have a strong, venerable and cynical hero whom everyone looks to for inspiration and help when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.
Director: Khalid Rahman
Cast: Mammootty, Shine Tom Chacko, Arjun Asokan, Lukman Lukku
Unda, however, does a re-invention of sorts with this genre -- not only in its characterisation of its main character but also in terms of the conflict presented. Mammootty's sub-inspector Mani is not the sort of hero that you would immediately want to idolise. And Mammootty owns the character in what can be regarded as one of his all-time best performances — where Mammootty the actor is more visible than Mammootty the star.
SI Mani is a man who has decades of experience in the police force, but he has not yet seen a real, truly frightening conflict that would require him to shoot someone or simply.... draw his gun. In one scene, he tells a junior that he prefers being out in the field to a desk job. One can tell he has not had an exciting career so far. Just like Mani, none of his team members have fired a gun before, except in training camps.
When they reach Chhattisgarh, it is completely alien territory for them. The threat comes in the form of mines planted along the way and hidden Maoists who could pounce on them when they're not looking. But ultimately, Unda is not about the might of its characters' adversaries or pyrotechnics. The characters' adversaries are their own weaknesses. In one crucial moment, Mani's inner fears are laid bare in front of his entire team. The news of his ineptitude also reaches the ears of the Hindi-speaking officers. Can there be anything more embarrassing than that? How do you face your team after you have just let them down? How can you win back their trust? This is the challenge in front of Mani.
But sometimes it's the most humiliating and terrifying situations that can turn a cat into a lion. Though this is not a film made for audiences expecting another Madhura Raja or The Great Father, there is enough in Unda to satisfy the mass audiences. Also pleasing are the cameos by two popular faces in Malayalam cinema, featured in a pivotal segment which takes the film in an unexpected direction. This plot development, it's safe to say, gives Mani and team more headaches.
What really makes a men-on-a-mission film great? Is it the actors, the story, or the action? On some occasions, a film like this can work solely based on its actors' performances and sometimes on the action. In Unda, we get a character who is as vulnerable and confused as the rest of his team members. Nowhere in the film do you see the "I know better because I've more experience than you" moments. Mani is one of them, and one of us.
The best men-on-a-mission films, like the aforementioned titles, gave more precedence to character dynamics than the spectacle. Though none of the films I listed earlier have particularly memorable action sequences, they're still endlessly watchable thanks to their cast and the realistic depiction of male camaraderie. Thankfully, Unda scores in that department. Every character has distinct qualities, thereby making it easier for us to identify each one of them.
It's also a political film, strongly making its stand clear on a couple of issues. As in his brilliant directorial debut Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, Khalid Rahman upends some genre expectations in Unda as well. Whether it will turn into another classic or not, only time will tell.