“You don’t need no gun control. You know what you need? You need some bullet control. […] I think all bullets should cost 5000$. You know why? If a bullet cost 5000$ there’d be no more innocent bystanders…” – Chris Rock, Bigger and Blacker (1999)
How often does one get to watch a narrative that uses a component of the state’s machinery to draw parallels to the very people the same machinery is used to oppress? It’s a sleight of hand, so masterfully executed in Unda that it almost eclipses what is also exceptional filmmaking. Khalid Rahman’s second venture leaves us with frames and flourishes that remain with us long after the films title credits roll. A furtive glance from a marching policeman toward kids he would never fear in normal circumstances. A sub inspector who moves into focus in the frame just as he comes into his element and takes command of a situation. The gentle caress of a book whose companionship allowed that SI to sense his way through an opaque situation. The throwaway and yet meaningful gesture in a wide shot where a departing policeman lights an unlit lamp. Unda is full of dialog free cinematic moments that are decidedly mainstream without the typical attendant showiness. It’s a middle ground that a select group of Malayalam filmmakers are beginning to tread successfully, and Khalid Rahman has announced his arrival into that category with aplomb.
Unda expands on a key idea found in another of these films, Thondimuthalum Dhriksaakshiyum. Through the character of S.I. Chandran in that film Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran only begin to dismantle the typical monolithic view of the state apparatus that is the law and order system (we elaborate a little on this idea here). Unda drives that concept to its logical conclusion; the redemption of the monolithic, oppressive (sometimes purpose, sometimes inadvertent) long arm of the law lies in its reduction to its component humans. The film portrays this wonderfully through a number of independent narratives. The part of the system we see is removed from the typical power center that this group has access to – the police station. The protagonists of this piece are itinerant enforcers traveling to far edges of a country where they suddenly find themselves just as forgotten as the inhabitants of the land they’re visiting. The very process through which this transpires is wonderful writing and filmmaking. Imagine, if you will, a contingent of police officers as a set of stacked lathis. Initially there are so many lathis that you need entire compartments of a train to fit all of them. Then there is a fork in the road, and the lathis split up into trucks. The forks in the road continue, until eventually the lathis are walking single file into a barely functioning school surrounded by bogies like landmines and militant Maoists.
Navigating these threats (real and imagined) without the traditional power structures at their disposal, we see this small crew cycle through Tuckman’s phases of storming, and performing but that intermediate stage of norms development is still left as a work in progress. It is additionally endearing to see that the de facto leader isn’t exempt from going through these cycles himself. Mammootty delivers a performance so reminiscent of Mudra and yet so different that one is hard pressed to think of a contemporary in Malayalam cinema who could’ve pulled this off with the same élan. But what is most heartening is that the crew eventually understands who they are there to protect, and the central role the enfranchisement of these people plays in the sustenance of democracy. Maybe expensive bullets that curtail demand are really what we need to bring the system and the very of innocents it purports to protect on the same side to fight to save democracy?