What makes survival movies work? Is it the hero’s suffering and subsequent miraculous escape? The act of facing up to the worst fear and conquering it? Well, the most cursory reading of popular survival movies would reveal a pattern. At the heart of this pattern is a hero with a story so relatable, emotions so resonant and grit so raw that you find yourself taking an empathetic journey. Mohanlal starrer Neerali is high in grit quotient, but as far as the story and emotions go, it fires blanks.
Without wasting much time Ajay Varma takes us right into the jaws of death, capturing the nightmarish details of two doomed passengers trapped in a pick-up truck that is dangling precariously from the edge of a cliff at the mercy of some dubiously strong tree branches. Admirably, movie never attempts to force the pace, instead makes use of Mohanlal’s screen presence in balancing not just the pace of the plot, but the fate of the dangling pick-up. It must be said that it works well on both counts. For a two hour-long movie with a straightforward story to tell, Neerali does not feel off the pace.
Mohanlal plays Sunny, a Gemologist who is for equal parts a cautious flirt and caring husband. Plot makes it clear ad-nauseam that Sunny is no skirt-chaser. We see his blithe playfulness in the introductory scenes. We also see him in his most vulnerable moments as the expectant father of the twins. There are women looking half his age swooning over sunny. Could it be his watertight moral code? Mad guitar chops? I guess we will never quite know why. (Laaleetta enthayaalum thaangal oru sambavam thanneenatta).
Sunny joins Veerappan (Suraj) in a Pick-up as they transport a box full of precious gems. Veerappan has his fair share of problems; a family falling on hard times, a marriage gone awry and an unhappy daughter. Suraj’s character undoubtedly forms the emotional backbone of the story. He really wore his heart on the sleeves and appeared to have the most unsophisticated but natural-sounding dialogues in the whole movie. In the course of their journey, you see Sunny going into self indulgent monologues about totally irrelevant topics.
Co-starring Mohanlal, albeit rarely seen together except for song scenes, is Parvathy Nair whom Sunny keeps at arm’s length. We see Sunny telling her lies to escape her possessive clutches. Because her character is developed so poorly, most of her dialogues, though central to the story, ring pretty hollow.
As the mostly unremarkable ‘let’s meet all the characters’ sequences unfold, the film shifts its focus to the back stories of the characters. Moving as they are, I felt as if they were there to help us better understand Sunny’s character. But it’s a tactic that missed the mark, if not backfired. Of the four central characters, Sunny’s character gets the least treatment in the way of back story development. Perhaps, deliberately leaving viewers with a sketchy characterization of the main character paid off in the grand scheme of the film’s narrative. But it can also be seen as the writer’s failure to give more substance to what is by and large a one-dimensional character. And, of course this denied viewers the customary emotional punch unique to the hero in every survival movie ever made.
As if to comply with the established standards of Survival movie genre, story obligingly includes a hallucination sequence which, though visually stunning, adds almost nothing to the story. While it isn’t going to set the world on fire, I liked the camerawork. Especially, the sustained cross-cutting that paved the way for a laborious but compelling plot development.
What I particularly enjoyed in the film was its pacing. Every time Sunny does some thinking outside the box and conjure up an escape plan, you hear the long-winded sermon of vicar priest from an outlying village. Ironically, the rambling sermon seems to carry some message of its own in relation to the suffering of Sunny. This almost looked like a story within a story and added much-needed distraction to the plot development. Film declares the end of the first half with a squirm-inducing cliffhanger that would impress George RR Martin.
The situational parallels between the characters were visible throughout the story. There were also personal conflicts that each of them was left to overcome. Which is why half way through the movie, I found myself mulling over the various ways in which the story could go. But the conflicts were resolved in a tepid fashion with little regard for the unconventional. The result is a movie that will be remembered not so much for its narrative brilliance as for its occasional flashes of brilliance.
Director: Ajoy Varma
Cast: Mohanlal, Nadhiya Moidu, Parvatii Nair, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Nassar, Dileesh Pothan, Megha Mathew