Director: Martin Prakkat
Writer: Shahi Kabir
Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Nimisha Sajayan
Streaming on: Netflix
Nayattu is a chilling film about the machinations of the system. The title means ‘The Hunt’ in Malayalam. Here the hunters are police officers but the fugitives are also police officers. Writer Shahi Kabir and director Martin Prakkat construct a taut and tense thriller, which reveals the rot at the heart of our democracy. It’s a jungle and each person in the hierarchy casually condemns the one lower. Justice is a joke. Caste is weaponised in the struggle for power. The only thing that matters is perception and winning.
This isn’t new information. What makes Nayattu brilliant is the way Martin reworks it. The film begins with a tug-of-war competition. Praveen, who has recently joined the police force, is a key player. But here he is on the team opposing the police team, which hints at events to come. At the police station, we are introduced to Praveen’s senior, Maniyan, and a junior named Sunitha. It’s a busy time. Elections are around the corner. Through the first half hour or so, Martin establishes the rhythms of police life – the compromises big and small. Praveen, perhaps because he is new, is more idealistic but Maniyan understands that they are pawns in a larger game. Early in the film, Maniyan follows orders and plants evidence to set up an innocent man. With a bitter resignation he remarks: “Even goons have the freedom to accept or reject such orders but we don’t.”
Martin also gives us a glimpse of their personal life – Praveen’s sick mother, Maniyan’s gifted daughter, whom he dotes on, and Sunitha’s belligerent relative, whose aggression sets off a chain of events that derails their lives. One night, there is an accident. Maniyan’s first instinct is to flee but Praveen insists that they do the right thing and take the victim to a hospital. But there is little reward for decency. Instead, the three become embroiled in a cauldron of politics and violence. They are forced to run and what unfolds has a gruesome inevitability.
Martin narrates this tale of horror without a trace of artifice or exaggerated drama. The cops, the Dalit party workers, and the media adding fuel to the fire are all ultimately puppets in the hands of politicians who wholly lack a moral compass. Martin and Shahi leave us with an open ending but truthfully, it’s impossible to be optimistic about the fate of these characters.
The three leads are terrific – Joju George as Maniyan, Kunchacko Boban as Praveen and Nimisha Sajayan as Sunitha bring authenticity and an understated gravitas to their roles. Joju especially towers over the narrative, seamlessly slipping from concerned father to compromised cop to desperate runaway. Martin hints that in a more just world, perhaps Praveen and Sunitha might have found a connection but their circumstances make a relationship impossible. There is a lovely moment when the three are in hiding, in which Praveen goes to a store and buys Sunitha sanitary pads, without her asking him. There is compassion in that gesture that speaks volumes. Watch out also for a police officer named Anuradha who leads the team that hunts down Maniyan, Sunitha and Praveen. Yama Gilgamesh is solid.
Nayattu also boasts of A-list technicians – it’s been co-edited by Mahesh Narayanan, the director of C U Soon and Take Off. The cinematographer is the brilliant Shyju Khalid who captures the stunning beauty of Munnar. The sound design by Ajayan Adat and the music by Vishnu Vijay add to the textures of dread and despair that Martin skillfully constructs.
There has been heated debate online whether all this artistry is in service of a film that, at its heart, is anti-Dalit. That the representation of a horrifically marginalised community is one-sided and the politics are willfully naïve and serving an upper-caste gaze. The aggressor in the narrative is Dalit and so are two of the three leads. I’m not familiar enough with Kerala politics to comment but Nayattu doesn’t peddle in blacks and whites. The villain here is the larger machinery. This is a system in which, as Maniyan says, cops who do their job honestly always end up getting in trouble. In any case, this is a film worth watching and arguing about.
You can watch Nayattu on Netflix India.