But Paleri Manikyam is not an investigative thriller in the true sense and if you are expecting a CBI Dairy story or even something like Pavithran’s Utharam, you would be grossly mistaken. There is a scene in the movie when a veteran Communist worker asks Haridas the relevance of such an investigation after 50 long years when none of the main players of the drama are alive and Haridas says that this could be an investigation either out of curiosity or possibly a look at the conditions of the period in Malabar when such a story happened and learning from it. (In an interesting conversation when his companion Sarayu says that this is somebody’s life and not a story, Hari replies that after death, everyone’s life is just a story – so relevant to our times). The intent is clearly not a who-dun-it mystery but a slow and steady permeation into the event and it definitely satisfies the viewer who is willing to wait and watch as the story unravels.
The movie follows a complex narrative where the story moves back and forth through the eyes of its various characters. Haridas narrates most of the events and moves along with the various characters in the movie which gives it a quasi-documentary feel at times. A scene which truly conveys the beauty of the narrative is when on one side of the frame we see Manikyam along with her husband coming to the village on a boat after her marriage, on the other side we see her corpse being taken away in a boat, with the narrator standing on the shore in the middle, and making a comment! There is an almost Rashomon like effect we witness as each character presents his own version of the story and we are left wondering where the truth lies. Such narration techniques have not been attempted in mainstream Malayalam cinema and Renjith pulls it off with aplomb.
Paleri Manikyam is set in rural North Kerala in the late 1950s and Renjith, along with Manoj Pillai (the cinematographer), takes us into this world and it is a fascinating effort. Capturing Kerala on canvas is a cake walk for any cinematographer but Renjith uses the backdrop itself acts as a character in the plot, with a mixture of colours which add to the intrigue surrounding the town. The music by Sarath and Bijbal also does not vie too much attention and percolates the background surely but certainly.
The political upheavals of the period also necessitate the role of petty politics in the drama. Barber Keshavan (Srinivasan) is a grassroots communist worker (the conscience of the village as Haridas refers to him) who believes in class struggle and refuses to work on the day EMS is sworn in but he is eventually dismayed to see the party succumbing to the elite, against whom they had battled. In his own words, he is neither a believer nor a communist – just a mere hairdresser. It is his disillusionment with the Party which leads him to provide the valuable inputs that help in piecing together the story.
K P Hamsa (veteran screenwriter T Damodaran), on the other hand, is a pragmatic Communist leader who realizes that the movement needs the support of the rich and is willing to compromise a few things for what he believes is the greater good. While the movie points a finger at the party for its rule in the cover up, you also realize that there was no personal benefit that was intended and was purely for the growth of the party (a rarity by today’s standards). He knows that a classless society is utopia and that the oppressed needs the oppressor to sustain the movement, so the marriage between the bourgeoisie and the Party to suppress the death of a poor girl, who nobody cares for her.
The police investigation in the late 50s was clearly more primitive when compared to today, which meant that the importance of circumstantial evidence and testimony was much higher, in the absence of technological support. Manikyam’s body is carried in jute mats across the river by boat on an overnight journey to Vadakara for post-mortem which exposed the body to further deterioration and could possibly endanger the evidence. The judiciary had to also contend with the fact that this was the first such case before them but we do not know whether the complexity of a rape case was understood at that time.
One weak link in the story is the relevance of the sub-plot involving Haridas and his girlfriend. Sarayu has a broken relationship with her husband, while Haridas has a faithful unsuspecting wife and a pleasant family life, but still he desires his colleague (he interestingly draws a parallel with Ahmed Haji for a similar failing) but this thread is not developed enough for us to draw any form of parallel with the main track.
Maybe if the film moved along interspersed with a few subtle hints regarding their relationship or his family troubles, it could have had a greater impact; otherwise, Haridas simply doing the investigation himself would also have sufficed, unless the lady character added something extra in the plot. Of course, the fact that the actress playing Sarayu also seemed a bit lost at times does not help the cause.
The other area which could possibly have a greater flourish would be the climax - it could have been more underplayed possibly or maybe even skipped because it did seem a tad artificial (especially by the movie's standards). The novel merely mentions Ahmed Haji’s son but the film goes further and builds a climax on the basis of this man, who makes a late entry. I do not want to add any spoilers here but it would be sufficient to say that even without this contrivance, the movie would have worked.
The movie boasts of an interesting cast – a lot of non-professionals were selected by Renjith to play various important roles in the movie after conducting an extensive workshop. This actually helps in giving it a more authentic feel and ensuring that we are not swayed by their usual appearances. The S K Pallipuram character who is the architect of the drama on the night of the rape is a small but interesting character; he also provides Haridas with a missing official report which helps in linking a few vital cogs. He represents the liberal who lies in his drunken arrogant stupor, who wields a great deal of influence by virtue of the might of his words but is too lost in his own world, under the influence of alcohol, to make a difference to the society – eventually becoming a mere pawn in the hands of the powerful.
While most of the actors are adequate (except Gowri Munjal), the pick of the cast are Mammooty and Shwetha Menon. Shwetha is at ease while exuding oomph as well as pathos as the older forsaken mistress of the Haji and is slowly emerging as an actress to watch for in the Kerala film horizon. Mammooty’s performance as Ahmed Haji is stellar and though the character is one-dimensional, it is played to perfection and is definitely a memorable performance (Kamal’s take on this role would be another caricature with more emphasis on the physical self).
My last four movies have been Bhramaram, Kerala Cafe, Loud Speaker and now Paleri Manikyam and if this is any evidence of Malayalam cinema slowly emerging out of its worst phase, then we are definitely in for exciting times. Renjith has once again shown (after Thirakatha and Kaiyoppu) that he is an exciting talent and the new generation (with the likes of Lal Jose, Renjith Shankar and others) is ready to revive the lost art called Malayalam cinema.