I looked up during the interval who the director is – Rajeev Ravi. He’s only directed a few Malayalam films, but he’s worked extensively as a cinematographer in Bollywood, with Anurag Kashyap especially. He was cinematographer on Bombay Velvet, Gangs of Wasseypur, Dev D, etc. And key in Malayalam cinema, he was cinematographer for Classmates. There were some really interesting shots — into plate glass windows, some shaky handheld work during action scenes, etc. It just was visually interesting and not all straight forward shooting as we sometimes see in Indian film.
The story is shown in a series of flashbacks after he gets a call in Mumbai from an old friend in Kerala who is in trouble. Dulquer is Krishnan, a Hindu middle class kid and the name of the movie is the neighborhood he grew up in and the name of his gang. We see his exposure to violence as a very young child, as he and his best friend Ganga see a local tough kill three men who challenge him. Then another actor plays Dulquer as a young teen and we see that he has fallen in love with a Dalit girl. The trouble is, so has Ganga. Ganga and the whole gang are dalit, and the ringleader is Balan, Ganga’s older brother. The actor who played Balan was incredible – newcomer Manikandan.
Krish is jailed after he saves Ganga from being arrested by slashing a cop with a knife/machete in an impulsive act, ending up killing the cop.
When he gets out of jail, it’s young Dulquer acting the part. We keep flashing back and forth in the narrative, and we can see present day Dulquer/Krish is injured with a bound torso, trying to keep conscious while riding a bus.
Balan, Ganga and the gang introduce Krish to their current operation — mostly transporting illegal hooch and bootlegging. They also are hired to run off some poor families who are refusing to sell to a real estate developer.
Balan’s grandfather confronts Balan with his shame that his relative could do this to their relatives and people, and then the grandfather dies of the shock and shame. This changes Balan and he wants to get out of the business as does Krish. But they know too much, and a new rival in the organization won’t let things stand. Balan is killed and Ganga blames Krish for it.
Ganga, Krish and the gang go after Johnny, the rival and then lay low after the altercation. Ganga tells Krish that he knows that Krish and Anita love each other but their families will never allow them to marry as it would be intercaste. He says that he will marry Anita and try to make her happy. Krish then goes to Mumbai. The mystery through much of the film is how if Ganga was his romantic rival and “stole” his girl, why would he leave everything to help him and look for him all these years later?
The guy who plays Ganga as an adult, Vinayakan was also fantastic. I just looked him up and he was the villain John in Kali! The director found some great actors, and your sympathies are with the Dalit and how they keep getting screwed. Their boss goes respectable and becomes a business tycoon in legal liquor and real estate, but the gang are left with nothing.
There is a final revenge scene, and Krish looks out over the city Ernakulam, Kerala. He says to the person he’s killing that the city was built on the thick black blood of the Dalit people. And then I realized that the idyllic country place from the childhood scenes, to the motley semi-rural shacks in the young men section to then the present day bustling city were all the same place. And the point of the movie was that this vibrant young new city was built on the Dalit community being dispossessed and they did it for quick money to their own community. That was probably obvious to the Kerala audience but I didn’t really get it until the end.
The women in the movie didn’t have much to do, much like many gangster pics. One interesting note was that Balan’s wife seemed to have become a don herself after his death (and more successful.) She assists Krish to find the answers at the end. And there is an unrequited romance for Krish, and a whisper of a song motif for them, but no full fledged song numbers at all. It was very much parallel cinema. I’m guessing it’s much like Gangs of Wasseypur (which I haven’t seen yet), Kerala version.
Krish is our entre to their world, but he’s more a witness to what happens to the Dalit community. He’s still middle-class and Hindu in the end and can move to Mumbai to start over, unlike the rest of the gang.
The film felt long to me, and I wished it had been edited a little tighter. (The filming ended in March evidently.) It’s a sprawling gangster epic in the mode of Nayakan, Godfather, Casino, etc. It’s not my favorite type of film. So, so violent. Shockingly violent in several parts. The acting was great, but it’s a story of brothers of circumstance if not of blood or caste. It’s the story of Ganga and Balan, and also Krish.
I admire this movie very much, but it’s not something I want to see over and over again. It’s just very dark and violent and searing. It was hard to see Dulquer be so violent in Kali, and this is even steps beyond that. It’s not a silly action Masala movie. He does the action scenes well, but he’s not a hero.
I thought we were seeing Dulquer play an adult in Kali, but this film shows him really, truly coming of age. I’m excited to see him take on that mantle, and looking forward to see what roles he’ll take on next.
Four stars out of five.