The first thought that came across my mind while watching the teasers of ‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ (The Book of Revelation) – and Mohanlal in two get-ups – was that with the advent of ‘New Gen’ films, one of the tropes of commercial cinema to have been retired more or less post-2010 was the ‘double role’. In Mohanlal’s case, for example, his last double role before ‘1971…’ and this movie, was in ‘Photographer’ 11 years back. Even in films like ‘Njan’, ‘Sakhavu’ and ‘Oru Mexican Aparatha’, the second role was more of a modern-day extension, or reincarnation of the first role, and these weren’t really ‘watch two heroes for the price of one’ dual roles. The most telling sign of these roles could be that we don’t get the scene where both characters team up and get into action.
We do get to know halfway through the movie that it isn’t slavishly bringing back the conventional ‘double role’ (More about it later). Meanwhile, we have other digressions (or regressions, to be less forgiving). There’s the hypocritical, perverted, laughing-stock of a professor (Prem Raj, a.k.a. ‘Kamaraj’, played by Salim Kumar). We get two young lady professors: one of them made to be more conventionally ‘good-looking’ and thus the nominal heroine (Prof. Mary by ‘Angamaly Diaries’ fame Anna Reshma Rajan), and the other, the less ‘pretty’, or ‘older-looking’ teacher. The latter is a staunch proponent of eugenics nonetheless, and at least for some part of the running time, tries to unite hero and heroine. The film also gives us the cliché of the boys in the college being divided into two factions (here, it’s the city guys led by ‘Aanandam’ fame Arun Kurian who plays Sameer, versus the boys who stay by the seashore, led by Sarath ‘Appani Ravi’ Kumar, who plays Franklin) with one leader each. Because if you have even one more faction or leader in the house, the college would be too scattered. How would the students dance in unison then, to the Campus Song, which is half list of war chants and half nonsensical ditty?
Enter Professor (and priest) Michael Idikkula (Mohanlal), and soon, the campus is heaven on earth; what could be seen as a complete antithesis to Prof. Ramachandran’s fate in Cheppu (1987). He meets Franklin’s drunkard father by chance, and over the course of one scene, convinces him to go easy on the hooch. He gets Mary hitched with one of his relatives. He easily brings peace between Team Sameer and Team Franklin to a point that it was as if they weren’t rivals at all. He even convinces a student’s father, who he has never met before, to let her continue her course in the college (A slight misunderstanding led to her having to discontinue her studies). You’d think he’d at least ask for the directions to her home.
‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ is at once similar to and different from Lal Jose’s last film with the other ‘M’, ‘Immanuel’ (2013), which was also essentially about a nice-to-a-fault outsider who is compelled by circumstance to don a new role in an alien environment. Here too, he should fight all odds to succeed, lest he should lose his soul (or mind, in this case). But while that movie tried hard, bringing forth conflict point after conflict point, this time Lal Jose is content letting Mohanlal solve a problem even before we know there is one.
It’s minutes before the interval when we get to the actual meat of the story: the college needs funds for building their first hostel, and Prof. Idikkula (who else?) comes up with the idea of students and staff making a film to generate funds for building the hostel. Prof. ropes in his friend Vijay Babu (playing himself), who made ‘a film starring only newcomers’ a superhit, and Sameer, who is said to be a short film maker, dons the director’s hat. They later zero in on the story of ‘Bullet’ Vishwan (Anoop Menon), a mechanic-cum-thug who rallied for the establishment of this college, and was murdered under mysterious circumstances (The film opens with his murder). Soon the students and teachers are given their roles, and yes, the one role left to be filled is that of Vishwanathan’s. Everyone’s in a fix, Vijay Babu has almost shelved the project, and when he is about to leave, we see a lifted leg, then the ‘mundu madakki kutthal’, and then the ‘meesha pirikkal’…
The rest of the film plays out as ‘velipaadu’ after ‘velipaadu’, and even when they happen, we aren’t caught by surprise. As interesting as it seems on paper, to see that the villains (Siddique and Chemban Vinod Jose) aren’t exactly what they seem to be, the happenings on-screen couldn’t be any more limp. How does it help when even Mohanlal, who is a rather mellow and muted presence in the earlier portions, goes on autopilot mode post-intermission? How involved can one be when the cast and crew are seen servicing the star more than the story?
Which brings me to say that, even if inadvertently, ‘Velipadinte Pusthakam’ is way more interesting, and way more watchable as a self-commentary on the star at the centre, at least for the sheer audacity in display. As irksome as you might find it to be, you have to give it to them (or him) for the amount of thought that has gone into this aspect. While other stars would have easily settled for a few fourth-wall breaking moments, Mohanlal churns out an elaborate (if not very intricate) meta-movie all for himself.
The film’s innovation (if you will) can be found in the supposed ‘double role’ itself: Mohanlal doesn’t go for the easy ‘one massy role, one classy role’ divide. He plays both actor and character here, and could it be any more ingenious when the actual Bullet Vishwan is played by Anoop Menon, who is frequently accused of trying to mimic Mohanlal while performing? You’d think it works better the other way round, with Anoop Menon being the imitation and Mohanlal the roaring original, and yeah, it is the easier conceit to go with, but think about this: with this role reversal, is the film saying that all it takes for a character to be immortalised is to have Mohanlal enact it? Or is this Mohanlal confidently stating that from now on, his on-screen persona shall dwarf whatever character he plays? To add to our suspicion, Anoop Menon gets almost no dialogues as Bullet Vishwan, whereas Mohanlal gets plum punchlines when he acts as Vishwan.
The film does go for a few easy blows too, like Franklin’s father evoking Nedumudi Venu from ‘His Highness Abdullah’ and the customary Antony Perumbavoor cameo. ‘Velipadinte…’ in a way, seems to be an antidote for ‘Puli Murugan’, which for all its myth-making, made almost no references to its leading name. We also see how Anoop Menon’s coastal dialect gets denatured into a more generalised Malayalam when Prof. Idikkula enacts him. Is this Prof’s limitation as an actor, or an admission of one of the most telling traits of the post-Narasimham Mohanlal role?
There’s more reason to think that VP is perhaps Mohanlal’s most unabashedly self-aware star vehicle. Among those in the star cast beckoned to be at his service include a fellow National Award winner (Salim Kumar), and two actors who played breakout characters in ‘Angamaly Diaries’, which was the quintessential anti-‘star vehicle’. What do you know, it is the scriptwriter of that movie who plays one of the antagonists here!
We also get the most oblique stab at auteurism in this movie: Sameer was indirectly the reason why that student stopped attending college for a while, because he shot a video of her and Franklin chatting in a secluded place. Franklin’s accusation is as follows: ‘All you need is a glance to know that Sameer shot that video!’. Later, before Vishwan’s story is chosen, the ideas Sameer pitches for the movie are dismissed as ‘short film-worthy concepts’, only to see him shoot the most clichéd fight scenes and song sequences. Later, his decision to not make certain changes in the story is overruled by Mohanlal’s plea to change the climax (after he gets to know who actually killed Vishwan). Is there more to this scene than what is shown?
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Mohanlal is trying to convince us that he can slip into roles and become the invisible actor that he once was. We see him stay in character after the director yells CUT!, in two instances, and later he is shown crying long after a very emotional scene has been shot. Hell, towards the end , the film gets totally kitchen-sink on us by adding a mental condition into the mix (Lines between actor and character being blurred! Get it?) ! There’s practically no other reason for the outlandish climax to exist. Or maybe the reason is: ‘What if Mohanlal got to play the Nagavalli part?’
I must admit I was engaged, watching the film this way, but I did notice the rest of the audience tune out during the second half. They looked exhausted, having had to sit through too much of such exertions for a tad too long. How much fun can one have with oneself on-screen until the audience stops having fun? They were much happier during his intro scene, watching him do a wheelie on his cycle.
- Cheppu – here
- Immanuel – here
- ‘superhit film starring only newcomers’ / Angamaly Diaries – here
- ‘mundu madakki kutthal’ – folding the mundu in half
- ‘meesha pirikkal’ – twirling the moustache