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Al Mallu ( “A Malayalee” dir. Boban Samuel, 2020)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on December 31, 2020.

Nayana (Namitha Pramod) is a young Malayalee who, like many young Keralites, finds herself working in Dubai to try to secure a better future.  One day, she is visited by a man (Siddique) claiming to be the father of Tom (Anoop Majeed), encouraging Nayana to have her marriage arranged with Tom.  Nayana isn’t sure, but everyone around her thinks marriage to Tom is a highly practical solution (because Tom is, apparently, rich), so, in the end, Nayana agrees.  But Tom, as it turns out, isn’t exactly great marriage material, nor, as we discover, is that his true intention.  At the engagement party, he sprays Nayana with champagne, ignoring her when she asks him to stop, and when we see his face, we realize that he is the man who was ogling her as she was with her friends early in the film.  Tom further cements this view of him when he tells Nayana that he has an apartment at the hotel where the party is taking place.  He takes her there, ostensibly to clean up after soaking her with champagne, but  we soon realize that all of this is just an elaborate set-up so he can sleep with Nayana.  Nayana refuses and leaves, but she doesn’t realize that Tom had placed a hidden camera in the beadroom.  When she refuses to go along with him, he sends her the images he’s secretly recorded, causing her incredible stress and humiliation.

Nayana takes a leave of absence from work to get some rest from the shock she’s received, and when she returns, it’s to the news that while she was away, a new employee, Sreedhar Sreenivas (Fariz Majeed) has joined the company.  Sreedhar is shy around women, avoiding the women in the company who try to attract his attention.  Nayana doesn’t know him, but she seems impatient with him, but as she struggles to regain her footing at work, it’s Sree who steps in to give her a hand – though she doesn’t realize it at first, confused about how she’s getting work done, but having no recollection of doing it, which is put down to the medication she’s taking to help her deal with the stress of her humiliation at Tom’s hands.   It’s after another encounter with the skeevy, stalkery Tom that Nayana returns to her workplace, finding Sree in her cabin doing her work for her.  Nayana is furious, and threatens to call the police; Sree faints.  It takes a while before we can make sense of Sree’s behaviour, including his inability to touch women, but despite all of this – or perhaps because of it, because Sree’s shy, distanced behaviour allows Nayana to feel safe after her experience with Tom.

I love films about people who are broken, finding other people who are broken (perhaps in different ways), who end up as a kind of “found family” – that is, people who know what it’s like to not fit into neat boxes sharing that experience and supporting each other, especially people like the Malayalees who find themselves working in the the Gulf, where friends of friends become family, or at very least a support system — and Al Mallu is such a film.  It’s a small film, without lofty ambitions, and that sometimes shows in the production values and choices in direction.  I will admit that I found myself impatient at some of the choices the story makes – wasn’t it enough that Nayana was hurt by Tom once – did he have to continue to stalk her?  Did she really have to get so angry at Sree helping her at work that she wanted to call the police on him?  And sometimes I wondered whose story the film was really trying to tell.  Was it Nayana’s story – and by extension, that of women working in the Gulf who often find themselves taken advantage of?  Was it Sreedhar’s story?  Was it the story of Gulf Malayalees in general, clinging onto memories of friends and family in Kerala as they try to find a way to build a better future for themselves, sometimes finding their dreams elusive, like Tom’s pretend father?  At times, Al Mallu doesn’t really know what kind of story it wants to tell, losing the ability to connect us to a character in its quest to tell a story that encompasses every Gulf Malayalee experience, and tossing in a bit of thriller when one of Nayana’s friends, Meera, turns up dead.  And what of Sree’s fainting spell?  We do finally get an answer to that, and it’s frustrating, because it raises yet another serious issue (this time, of childhood sexual abuse) that isn’t given appropriate space in the film.  Al Mallu wants to be everything, and at the end, it really ends up being about nothing – and that’s a real shame, because there are some heartfelt moments in the film (like the true story behind the friends of the WhatsApp group) that deserved so much better.

And yet.  And yet.

In the last fifteen minutes of the film, we return to Nayana, first trying to convince Jimmy, a woman who has arranged to marry Tom, that Tom isn’t what he seems to be, and when that doesn’t work, turning up at the wedding in order to unmask Tom for the terrible man he is.  This allows us both the opportunity to have a fun wedding song (yes, it is kind of a jarring shift in tone, but who doesn’t love a wedding song?), complete with a special appearance by Lal as a rather unconventional priest.  It’s Lal who finally ties the theme together, giving a rousing speech supporting Nayana, and telling those present at the wedding that it’s always the women who get blamed, and never the men who need to take responsibility for their terrible behaviour.  It’s nice, too, that Nayana gets a moment where she stands up for herself.  I just wish the film had been clear from the start that this was its ultimate goal.

As I said, who doesn’t love a wedding song?  And doesn’t Lal make it all better?

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