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Lucifer (dir. Prithviraj Sukumaran, 2019)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on April 1, 2019.

In the South Indian state of Kerala – known as “God’s Own Country” –  P.K. Ramdas (Sachin Khedekar), the leader of the ruling party, dies, and a power struggle over who will replace him and who will retain power in the party and in the state ensues.  On the surface, this seems like a simple enough premise for what promises to be a mass entertainer – but the ripples of the struggle spread beyond Kerala, to Russian gangsters who rule the drug and weapons trade in Mumbai, and as far as America, where Jathin Ramdas (Tovino Thomas) lives.   The NRI son of the late minister, Jathin will return home and be primed to take his father’s place.  Jathin Ramdas is put into place at the head of the party by his brother-in-law Bimal “Bobby” Nair (Vivek Oberoi in his Malayalam debut), the second husband of his sister Priyadarshini (Manju Warrier) – Bobby is the one with the connections to the Russians, arranging a deal in which they will provide funds for the party in return for the opening of the drug trade in Kerala – a deal that the late P.K. Ramdas would never have tolerated.

Into the middle of all this arrives Stephen Nedumpally (Mohanlal), who, as a boy, was taken in by P.K. Ramdas, causing him to be hated by Priyadarshini, who saw him as the reason her mother (who never wanted to take the boy in) died.  Priyadarshini loathes Stephen, and wants him nowhere near her father’s funeral, but Stephen – who also has connections within the ruling party — arrives anyway to briefly pay his respects.  Many in the party see Stephen as a threat – but very few of them realize who he really is, how far his connections extend, and what he really is capable of.  “And no wonder,” (if I may take a page out of Murali Gopy’s book  — more on this in a bit — and toss in a few words myself, these from 2 Corinthians 11:14), “for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Stephen is the Lucifer of the film’s title, alternately the bringer of dawn like his namesake who fell from heaven, and a dark angel willing to root out the evil at play in the party and the lives of those connected to it.  This is not, as Stephen tells us, a battle between good and evil:  it’s a battle between evil, and less evil, and it’s one that he is determined to win. 

Prithviraj’s directorial debut is an unabashed masala entertainer.  It’s big and bold and brash and noisy, trading in all the filmi clichés that you would expect, capped off by some really ripping cinematography from Sujith Vaassudev, and background music by Deepak Dev that I found almost overwhelming.  But what was surprising to me, and what impressed me most is how restrained and perfectly pitched Mohanlal’s performance was in contrast to everything swirling around him.  Somehow everyone involved – director Prithviraj, writer Murali Gopy, and actor Mohanlal – managed to create this perfect storm of the mass hero and the serious actor, and, quite frankly, these were the moments that worked best for me – in fact, I really found it quite brilliant, and something I hadn’t felt about many of Mohanlal’s more recent roles.

I will admit that Lucifer was not wholeheartedly my cup of tea, for a number of reasons.  I’m not fond of writing that ends up too wordy, and bless, Murali Gopy does love his words.  But whereas I adored, for example, Ee Adutha Kaalathu and Left Right Left (both sharply written and thoughtful films), I found myself impatient at times with Lucifer, with the number of ideas and references that Gopy sandwiched in.  I love words, but in this case, I could have used fewer of them at points.  And I am an absolute fan of Indrajith, but I couldn’t really connect with his highly-strung conspiracy theorist/journalist, though on a purely theoretical level I understand why that character is there and why he’s played that way.

I have a mixed feeling about item numbers, too, and in the case of Lucifer, there’s an item number that pops up very near the end of the film, and it’s my least favourite type of item number:  one that’s set in a club, and used just as a cover for the action that will be going on behind the scenes.

Manju Warrier and Tovino Thomas managed to shine in the smaller roles they were given – it was impossible not to feel the anguish and grief of Priyadarshini at her father’s funeral, and her grim determination to light his funeral pyre when her brother had not arrived in time to do so.  And Jathin’s first appearance to present himself as his father’s successor really is a tour de force, and an example of what Murali Gopy can do when he doesn’t get bogged down by the need to throw too many ideas into a pot.  These are the moments where you do feel the brilliance in Lucifer – I didn’t find it a perfect film, and some things were not to *my* particular taste, but I left the cinema wishing I could watch the film one more time, to grasp some of the ideas that flew by me (the film is filled with so many references to both biblical and Indian mythology, by way of Shakespeare), and to appreciate, just one more time, the film’s truly shinining moments.

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