Remember the first time you watched David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) or even Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003)? Remember sitting there after the screening, speechless and totally bewildered, before delving into their aesthetics and technical aspects? Now, think about a(ny) movie that made you feel the same, but for the exact opposite reasons – a film that left you thinking, ‘what even?’ Let’s put a pin in that for now, until we circle back.
AK Sajan’s Pulimada (Tiger’s Den) centres on Civil Police Officer Vincent Scaria (Joju George), with a significant portion of the story unfolding in the course of a single night. Vincent, a 40-year-old man, remains unmarried despite his strong desire for companionship. While several proposals from friends and relatives have been presented over the years, none have panned out for various reasons. Eventually, Vincent succeeds in finding a bride, leading to a lavish engagement. However, the bride elopes with her lover on the wedding day, leaving Vincent fuming. He turns to heavy drinking and weed as coping mechanisms.
Amidst this turmoil, Vincent encounters a Tamil tourist named Mahishmati (Aishwarya Rajesh), who is stranded in the forest due to her car breaking down. Vincent chooses to escort her home, ostensibly to provide her shelter for the night, but in reality to get a night of pleasure, with or without her consent, a desire that had been snatched away from him.
Although Pulimada begins as a drama, it quickly diverges from the typical Malayalam drama when Vincent consults a psychologist due to persistent fears. He confides in the psychologist about his mother’s unjust confinement, wrongly labelled as mentally unstable by those around her. He also expresses concerns that people believe insanity runs in families and worries he might be susceptible, echoing the central theme of Sibi Malayil’s 1987 classic Thaniyavarthanam.
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Pulimada also portrays Vincent as a traditionalist who opposes his partner getting a job, and prefers her to be a stay-at-home wife, caring for him and their future children, in their ancestral house situated on a hillock near a forest in Wayanad. As the story unfolds, it gradually establishes Vincent’s anticipation of marriage, consequently providing context for his furious reaction when the wedding plans go awry.
Although the film takes 10-15 minutes to introduce the characters and establish the narrative foundation, leading one to question how the story will unfold within its 110-minute runtime, its dynamic changes dramatically after the inciting incident occurs, propelling the plot into high gear and showcasing various aspects of Vincent’s fury.
However, once this aspect is also revealed, the film’s script begins to meander aimlessly, reiterating previously established points repetitively. The only temporary shift in tone transpires for a brief period following Mahishmati’s arrival. Despite the initial momentum, this track also becomes tiresome, with subsequent scenes lacking substantial contribution to the overall film.
While the film explores themes of toxic masculinity and the backwardness of traditional values, it eventually gives the impression that these elements were included merely to align with prevalent conversations condemning such practices. This becomes particularly noticeable towards the end of the second act and also in the climax. Furthermore, the film’s treatment of non-consensual sex, resembling the arguments of apologists, is highly problematic.
Despite having a strong story, Pulimada’s progress is hindered by the lack of depth and substance in the script. Even during crucial moments, the scenes and dialogues fail to make a lasting impact, leaving viewers wondering ‘what even?’
While the entire narrative unfolds in an area adjacent to a forest where a tiger is on the loose, drawing a parallel between the human-eating animal and the central character’s ferocity, this analogy eventually loses its significance, failing to convey any substantial point.
Though AK Sajan demonstrates improvement as a story writer compared to his recent films, he falls short of transforming it into a compelling script that could have led to a powerful film. Despite translating his script onto the screen adequately, the lack of substance in the foundation nullifies his directorial efforts.
Amidst all this, the performances stand out, making Pulimada a worthwhile watch. Joju George, once again, proves himself as one of Malayalam cinema’s finest actors. Even while delivering dialogues that range from mediocre to subpar, Joju ensures his performance overshadows these shortcomings, skillfully portraying the nuances of Vincent. Despite the somewhat monotonous nature of Mahishmati, reminiscent of almost all free-spirited women written by men, Aishwarya Rajesh remains true to her role without fading into the background.
In spite of their characters not receiving any mention beyond the first act, Jaffar Idukki, Johny Antony and Pauly Valsan manage to leave a lasting impact with just a few minutes of screen time. While Chemban Vinod Jose and Lijomol Jose have some presence, the poorly developed nature of their characters prevents them from contributing significantly to the film.
On the other hand, one of the primary dampeners in Pulimada is its background track, which consistently feels out of sync with the narrative and settings. The loud and oddly Westernised tracks by Anil Johnson strip away the regional essence of the film, ultimately affecting its overall mood.
Cinematographer Venu, meanwhile, adeptly conveys the essence of the narrative and the landscape onto the screen. His work, particularly noteworthy given that the majority of the film unfolds in confined and compact spaces, encourages viewers to remain engaged with Pulimada. Jithu Sebastian’s art direction also deserves special mention for effectively capturing the spirit of the settings.
In short, although Pulimada mostly prompts a sense of bewilderment, the engaging performances and the brilliance of certain technical aspects render the AK Sajan film watchable.
Pulimada cast: Joju George, Aishwarya Rajesh, Chemban Vinod Jose, Lijomol Jose, Jaffar Idukki, Johny Antony, Pauly Valsan
Pulimada director: AK Sajan
Pulimada rating: 2 stars
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