It’s a small world in director Martin Prakkat’s latest Malayalam movie Nayattu, set in a town in Kerala. One of the three principal characters, the rookie cop Praveen Michael (Kunchacko Boban), operates under the tutelage of the seasoned Maniyappan (Joju George); Maniyappan was actually trained by Michael’s father back in his younger days. On the other hand, the lady cop Sunitha (Nimisha Sajayan), completing the movie’s lead triumvirate, happens to be cousins with Biju (Dineesh), a controversy-loving troublemaker who loves to influence the political landscape in the region.
With such a closed setting, it seems only par-for-the-course that the lives and destinies of these four characters should be interconnected. The butterfly effect kicks off in a lovely scene outside a police station where Biju defaces the wall and gets into a tiff with Maniyappan. The simmering tension is brought to life in a remarkably executed sequence, and the seemingly insignificant incident snowballs into a controversial moment. Biju gets locked up and the incident takes over social media channels. Shortly after, returning from a wedding in the middle of the night, the three cops find themselves on a deserted road, spotted next to the heavily injured body of Biju’s partner. This is the setup for a desperate fight for their survival and pits them against their own colleagues – talk about landing at the wrong place and at the wrong time.
As a movie, Nayattu works on many levels. It’s a solidly written old-fashioned thriller that showcases one set of cops chasing another in a cat and mouse game. The hunt (hence the title) is filled with several edge-of-your-seat moments in the backdrop of the picturesque and dense forests of the Kerela-Tamil Nadu border. For example, the scene when a cop at a security checkpoint shines the torchlight and finds the fleeing trio in the back of the truck. Or the scene when Sunitha splits from the two men and decides to head back home, only to realize the danger ahead and turn back into a speeding vehicle. Despite the sense of impending doom in their escape plan, Prakkat keeps the action tight and engaging.
But to view Nayattu merely as a thriller would mean to overlook the numerous aspects of its fine screenwriting. The movie’s theme of three cops becoming pawns in the hands of the establishment is preserved throughout, thanks largely to the treatment of the lead characters. We see and hear only a little bit of their background (one’s Mom is terminally ill, while another’s daughter is nursing a wish to win a dance competition in front of her Dad), but not so much that the focus would distract from the central conceit. During the search, the characters are constantly looked at as a trio, and their photographs are circulated across the internet for identification, with most of the search crew unaware of their names. Such treatment makes us look at them only as a bunch of cops being preyed upon, and not as Michael, Maniyappan, or Sunitha. Also, the fact that there are more such pawns in the setup is underscored by how Anuradha (the lead cop heading the search, played by Yama Gilgamesh) is manipulated by her own jefe’s during her search to locate the trio. Nayattu isn’t about these three cops at the center of this mess; transpose them with Anuradha and her mates, and we may well have had Michael, Maniyappan, and Sunitha on this side of the aisle, hunting the former down.
Set against the backdrop of local elections, the movie also illustrates that when communal tensions flare, political machinations begin to “administer” the state. It’s a premise not too far from reality, in a country where the system often becomes a player. When that happens, unlike the other thrilling game of tug-of-war at the start of the movie, there can never be a fair result.
Anuj Chakrapani loves cinema and believes movies, like other forms of art, is open to interpretation. And when you begin to interpret, you realize that the parts are more than the sum. Adopting a deconstructionist approach, he tries not to rate movies as “good” or “bad”, instead choosing to capture what he carries away from watching them. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a large technology company.