Underworld movie review: Asif Ali stars in a classy, well-directed gangster drama
Underworld sees director Arun Kumar Aravind in terrific form telling a story with not a single wasted minute in its 3-hour runtime
Underworld begins with a mildly-disturbing hunting sequence. It serves a dual purpose: developing one of the main characters as well as establishing striking parallels to a pivotal scene that appears in the film's second half. It's a splendidly-crafted sequence that serves as a testament to the quality of the overall making.
Cast: Asif Ali, Farhaan Faasil, Lal Jr, Mukesh, Muthumani
Director: Arun Kumar Aravind
Underworld is driven by the actions of its principal characters. Save for two women, most of the characters are well fleshed out. But it primarily revolves around the men. Surprisingly, the most important female character in the film is played by someone whose name is not at the top of the cast list. It's Muthumani, playing a lawyer who stands by a thug named Stalin John (Asif Ali). Though not his love interest, she's the only female character with considerable screentime. Even Stalin's mother takes a backseat to the lawyer's presence. Muthumani plays the character so convincingly that her actions suggest a backstory, which we never get to know, but could explain why she wants to save Stalin every single time. But some things are better left unsaid.
And being the supremely confident, arrogant and daring man that he is, Stalin needs all the support he can get, because there are not a lot of folks coming to his rescue. That puts someone with his attitude in a very dangerous situation. But in a film that is filled mostly with grey-shaded characters, Stalin is the one we are able to root for — aside from Majeed (Farhaan Faasil). Stalin and Majeed begin as foes, but sometimes the world's strongest friendships are forged in the most unpleasant of circumstances. They find an ally in Padmanabhan Nair (Mukesh), a corrupt politician who is in prison for stealing Rs 500 crore. Nobody knows where the loot is stashed except for his partner-in-crime, Solomon (Lal Jr), a man of dubious loyalty. Solomon is the most psychotic character in Underworld. He has a woman whom he is nice with, but unlike the women in the lives of Stalin or Majeed, Solomon's better half doesn't know her husband's other side. If the other men are open about what they actually do, Solomon is selective about the truths he wants to disclose. An amazing thing about Lal Jr's chilling performance is that he reminded me of the character his father played in the Mammootty film, Black.
As in his previous films, Arun Kumar Aravind shows great skill in the way he handles his characters. In Underworld, we get to see Mukesh in his most memorable role in a long time. Padmanabhan is someone who doesn't smile very often, but when he does, you are not sure of the intention behind it. He has a subtle, indirect way of making threats and exudes so much menace while doing so. Let's just say he is this film's Kaitheri Sahadevan. Shibin Francis' dialogues are razor-sharp and carry enough force to cut through glass. But sometimes a 'mass' line can also get you killed, as evidenced by one particularly unpredictable sequence which reminded me of that Eli Wallach line in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk."
Underworld is also one of the most elegantly shot films I've seen in recent memory. With the help of cinematographer Alex J Pulickal, Arun imparts a vintage vibe to the frames. It's an aesthetic straight out of pulp crime novels. I say this because the film feels like reading a vintage crime novel. It mostly takes place in rundown movie houses-cum-gambling joints and mud-filled industrial areas. There is a purpose for each shot, which is left to the viewer's interpretation. Sometimes the camera lingers on a particular object or gesture to convey the tension in a particular scene. A shot of an ice cube inside a whisky glass may be suggesting the chills arising from a scary confrontation. Sometimes the meaning of a scene is best summed up in the title of a well-chosen book read by one of the characters. In another scene, the confusion regarding the location of a certain scene is solved by the strategic placement of a motorcycle number plate. These are just a few examples that show how meticulous the crew has been.
The film's deliberate pacing might not agree with everyone, but I found it to be just perfect. It reminded me of those 70s American and British gangster movies which took the right amount of time to bring out all the possible emotions of a character or scene. It's a welcome relief from those rapidly-edited films which are in a hurry to get to the next scene without giving the previous scene ample breathing space.
It's not every day that you see a three-hour film which doesn't overstay its welcome. Underworld is the longest film since Lucifer (which is close to three hours) to not have a single wasted minute. It's so beautifully put together that, once the film is over, you arrive at the conclusion that it needed to be this long to tell its story the way the director intended. Underworld is the sort of gritty gangster drama I've been waiting to see from Malayalam cinema for a long time. I hope there will be a sequel.