Geetu Mohandas’ second venture Moothon opens with a serene sequence by the beach and a lullaby playing in the background, which makes the mood for a tender viewing experience, but do not be fooled by the opening sequence; the film is gritty, dark and violent at times, so much so that it makes the audience feel uncomfortable. But when it comes to exploring romance, the film presents that in the tenderest way, with lesser dialogues and actions and more silences and gestures. It is this dichotomy of feelings that one has to navigate throughout Moothon. It is at once the most raw and brutal depiction of violence in the form of ritual or crime, and simultaneously it is also fantasy-like in some moments like the sequence with a mermaid. One would like to believe in the narration in some of the sequences, but the disbelief soon seeps in making you question the narration. This duality is perhaps the key element that the film has to offer.
The story revolves around Mulla who goes to Mumbai in search of their ‘Moothon’ or elder brother. The story unfolds like the peels of an onion, and has layered revelations, surprises and unexpected turns including a flashback that becomes a major driving point for the film. Mulla meets Bhai in Mumbai, an underworld don and we get to know more about his relevance in the storyline through the flashback. I would not reveal the story any further, but spoiler alerts because it would be difficult to write a review for this film without talking about certain aspects that hold special relevance to the film.
Mulla played by Sanjana Dipu is one of the central characters in the narrative, but sadly the character feels underwritten and underdeveloped. There are numerous doubts that you have about Mulla’s character after you are done watching the film, and I do not know if it was intentional, but the way gender was represented in the film was confusing. Mulla, when we first meet them, is a male character and we see them wearing baggy clothes as if trying to conceal something. In the flashback, we get to know that Mulla is assigned female by birth. But towards the end, Mulla, a character which was looking so promising owing to the non-binary angle of the character, is forced to be a female. However, Sanjana Dipu has played the character effortlessly, and she shines through in some of the most difficult scenes involving violence. We see a sense of non-belonging, questioning inside the character, and Dipu has portrayed it with ease. Till the climax, the audience could be trying really hard to understand this gender politics, but some might be disappointed with how it turned out to be in the climax. It almost felt like the audience was provided with a happy ending, but that was not in sync with the character’s happiness. It showed the character being content in something that they are forced into, but it didn’t even divulge into the issues of gender that the film and the character started with, in the first place. Why did Mulla, an assigned female, dress up as a man? Was it sheerly out of the comfort of protection that the ‘supposed’ man’s position in the society provides, or was it related to gender-dysphoria, or was it to protect Mulla from the history of her family? These are some questions that remain unanswered despite multiple viewing of the film, but the way this issue was dealt with in the film is certainly problematic.
Another central character is Bhai/Akbar played by Nivin Pauly. Nivin is a superstar in the Malayalam film industry, and he is known for feel-good and action roles, however, here he shines through in a character categorically different than what he is used to doing. He is real, brutal, violent and scary but he is also vulnerable, tender and innocent, simultaneously. This ability to play two characters that can be considered to be the opposites in an axis is something special, and Nivin shines through and deserves all the applaud. We see him first as Bhai, a don in the underbelly of Mumbai who is bent up on inflicting violence on himself, speaks very less, indulges in all types of drugs, and at this point, it might seem like he is a stereotype of a don character of Hindi cinema, but he is not. With the usual don characters in Hindi/mainstream cinema, the violence is most often directed towards enemies or others, but here the don inflicts violence on himself as if he regrets being what he has become. This don is in pain, he feels the power he has, but he also feels powerless at the hands of destiny. Nivin is hauntingly real in the sequences as Bhai, and some audiences might feel extremely uncomfortable with all the violence and drugs that he indulges in since it is shot in a hyper-realistic way. We also meet Nivin as Akbar, a Muslim boy from Lakshwadeep who is known in the community for his spiritual power and for his ability to perform ‘Kuthu Ratheeb’, a Muslim ritual. Here, we get to know the background behind this ease of inflicting violence on himself, and we are contextualized with a history of the character. Nivin’s character is perhaps the most developed and well-written character in the film. Although we see him performing the ritual of Kuthu Ratheeb, involving a lot of self-harm and violence, we also see a sense of tenderness and innocence in the way unspoken desires emerge through the ritual. We see him falling in love, we see him struggling with his feelings and then going through loss and in every distinct emotion, he feels real, he feels our own, he feels grounded. The amount of vulnerability and innocence that Nivin brings into the scene with Akbar is polar-opposite to the violent and stubborn Bhai we see in Mumbai. He portrays Akbar’s vulnerability with all his heart, and he portrays Bhai’s stubbornness with equal dedication and in that the film belongs to Nivin’s wonderful, incomparable performance.
Another character, although a supporting character and having hardly 20-30 minutes of screen time, that made an impact was that of Aamir, portrayed by Roshan Mathew. Aamir is a mute, queer man from Lakshwadeep who falls in love with Akbar but fails to fulfill his dream of loving. It is a challenging character, because he has no dialogues and has to portray most of his feelings and emotions through gestures, and Roshan has excelled at that. He has played such a difficult character so convincingly, and most of the times with just his eyes, that you almost wanted more of his character in the film. His character’s silence and Akbar’s insistence on understanding the silence is perhaps one of the most beautiful features of the film. Geetu Mohandas has handled this queer love story so sensitively and with such care that you are almost in disbelief that it is part of the otherwise gritty and dark film. You are transported to the shores of Lakswadeep and immersed in an unnamed love affair which is too good to be true. There is a 2-3 minute sequence between Akbar and Aamir that ends with the word ‘Akbar’ being whispered by mute Aamir into Akbar’s ears, and that will surely leave you in tears. If Akbar is the soul of the film, then Aamir is the heart beating loudly even in his silence.
There are some other minor characters in the film, notable among them is Salim played by Shashank Arora, Moosa played by Dileesh Pothan, Latheef played by Sujith Shankar, and Rosy played by Sobhita Dhulipala. Rosy is the stereotype of a sex worker in Hindi cinema, who is street-smart, beautiful and likes to curse a lot. The character does not have much to offer, but Sobhita manages to play a believable part. Latheef’s character is another important and interesting arc which could have been developed further. Sujith Shankar plays the part of a transgender quite well, even though the character is under-written. We are not told much about them, but the character has some sort of relationship with Bhai, and Bhai comes to seek their help. Sujith portrays the confusion and stark realities that one faces in a society that is hell-bent on forcing everyone into binaries. However, one of the biggest disappointments is the way Salim’s character was presented. It is definitely an under-written character and Shashank portrays even that so effectively that you are almost rooting for him despite him being in a not-so positive role.
Now that we are done with characters, let’s come to some of the interesting concepts that have been explored in the film. One of the interesting things that caught my eye was how intimacy was shown in violence and ritual. There is one sequence where Aamir has an epileptic seizure of some sort, and has passed out, and Akbar comes in to perform rituals to make him better. While Akbar is blowing duas into Aamir’s mouth, both of them exchange a look of love through their eyes. It transcends the boundary of ritualistic practices and delves into an unexplored area of intimacy. It is one of those rare queer moments that we fail to acknowledge. Another such sequence is when Akbar is performing the Kuthu Ratheeb ritual and inflicting violence on his body, but simultaneously making eyes with Aamir who looks at him with all fondness. The fact that intimacy exists in rituals is something a lot of us could have never imagined before, and in that, the film makes a point.
Another interesting concept is the realization and handling of queerness, and I would not talk much about this because one needs to see to realize how beautifully that has been portrayed in the film. There is a video titled ‘Mirror Scene’ of Moothon on its official YouTube channel that you should definitely check out to see how well it was done. In this particular scene, Nivin gave one of those rare moments filled with vulnerability, innocence, anxiety as well as joy. It is a goosebump-inducing scene, and must be acknowledged for what it is. Geetu Mohandas managed to tell a run-of-the-mill love story in such a unique and tender way that one wonders what this film could have achieved if it was just about this particular aspect.
But the film is not just about that and that brings me to the problems of the narrative. First of all, the gender politics that Mulla’s character traverses through as discussed earlier is extremely problematic. The gender politics again comes to the fore when Latheef’s character undresses from their usual saree to a man’s cloth to meet Bhai. Since no context has been given to the character’s behavior, it comes off as problematic. Another problem is the excessive uses of violence, even in rituals which further enforces the stereotype of angry Muslim men, and if you see, most of the characters including Akbar, Moosa and Salim are angry, violent and brute. Although we see Akbar and Aamir being tender and innocent at some point, most of the narrative is focused on this violent behavior whether it is of criminal consequence or of religious significance. The first half of the film especially strengthens this stereotype, however, in the second half we see a welcome change and some tenderness and playfulness in the characters of Akbar and Moosa, but that doesn’t last long.
Coming to the technical front, Geetu Mohandas has directed the film with all care, and with Anurag Kashyap’s involvement, the Mumbai underbelly scene comes out raw and unabashed like his other films. Mohandas’ exploration of the space of Lakshwadeep is simultaneously tender and gritty. However, the script by Mohandas and Kashyap comes off as inconsistent at times. One is constantly trying to navigate through the duality of the mood in the film, and some of the contexts to a character’s behavior are absent. Some of the characters feel like stereotypes of representation in mainstream films. Even the fact that Akbar turned into an angry, misogynist gangster after a failed love affair is something that comes off as unbelievable and inconsistent to the storyline. The cinematography of the film done by Rajeev Ravi deserves an applaud. He has not only presented two variably different scenarios but has done it with such efficiency that you are almost transported to the locations while watching the film. The two stark scenarios of dark and dingy Mumbai and open and calm shores of Laskshwadeep through Ravi’s eyes are worth a watch.
Another factor that worked really well for the film was the background score by Sagar Desai. Desai’s mournful and mystic tune that re-surfaces throughout the film adds a dimension to the film. The film does not overuse music, unlike many other mainstream films, but rather keeps it as an emotional trigger to the scene. Especially, the love song that is being played out when Akbar and Aamir are together will surely evoke feelings in you.
Moothon tries to work around a lot of areas from the politics of underworld and crime to gender and queerness, but it does none of them entirely. It falls into the trap of being a Masala film trying to be an arthouse morality drama. It evokes all the right feelings but also transcends into the problematic territory of gender politics without ever actually engaging with it on a deeper level. It gives Nivin the right slow-mo entry that we have come to associate with heroes of big blockbusters, but it also antagonizes him, makes him feel more human. In this process of transcending from one story to the other, from one mood to the other, from violence to tenderness, from erotics to the phobic, it loses its essence somewhere. But, it is definitely worth a watch, for the performances of Nivin and Roshan and as it is a visual and sensory experience that has its problems, but also has so many beautiful and effective moments stitched together in a roller-coaster ride. The queer love story explored in the film alone makes it worth a watch, because in the world of tokenism, we can surely do with a passionate, tender representation of queer romance.