A reputed cast led by the redoubtable Fahadh Faasil, an epic narrative that spans decades, a preference for grittiness over glamour in examining the rise of a coastal gangster – Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik is, at the very least, highly ambitious.

The new movie from the Malayalam director of Take Off and C U Soon is very slick, perhaps too much so. Style trumps substance and a cause-and-effect dynamic overtakes psychological shading, leaving us with several beautifully staged and filmed scenes that please the eye but barely touch the soul.

Although Malik has supposedly been inspired by real events in Kerala, the 1970s-style gangster film mostly labours in the shadows of older crime dramas, from The Godfather and Nayakan to Kammattipadam and Vada Chennai.

A few scenes of crosscutting between disparate moments directly pay homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films, in which a Mafia don brings brutal order to the chaos around him. In other places, Malik follows in the footsteps of recent films that attempt to understand the interplay of politics, urban policy, corruption and selective justice in transforming citizens into criminals.

Faasil’s Sulaiman is out of the book. Pushed into crime by circumstance, the fisherman rises to become a man of the people and the only thing standing between rapacious politicians and projects that will destroy his fishing village and community.

Fahadh Faasil and Vinay Fortt in Malik (2021). Courtesy Anto Joseph Film Company.

The bigger and more effective criminals are on the government payroll, Narayanan’s screenplay suggests. Politicians, high-ranking government officials and the police resort to dirty tricks to undercut Sulaiman’s vast influence over his fiefdom. Sulaiman’s arrest in an old case gets him out of the way and allows the police to move in for the kill with the help of people with links to Sulaiman’s bloodied past.

Sulaiman blasphemes frequently, but religion plays a vital role in propping up him as well as bringing him down. Old crony-turned-politician Abu (Dileesh Pothan) rouses the rabble after Sulaiman’s incarceration. David (Vinay Fortt) is Sulaiman’s brother by another mother until his sister Roseline (Nimisha Sajayan) marries Sulaiman. Inter-faith tensions only ease the efforts of the police and the collector Anwar (Joju George) to give a communal spin to Sulaiman’s operations.

Malik (2021). Courtesy Anto Joseph Film Company.

The tone for the multi-hued narrative is set by the lengthy opening single-take sequence, shot expertly by cinematographer Sanu John Varughese. Elsewhere, Varughese choreographs several complex sequences in which characters and events intersect and collide. Narayanan, who has also edited the movie, orchestrates breath-taking sudden deaths and showcases the colours and flavours of the locales without showiness.

For all its exertions, Malik’s insights into the true nature of crime are ordinary, and are especially more unconvincing because they are delivered with utmost seriousness and an exaggerated sense of urgency. The 162-minute movie is groaning with over-directed and over-staged scenes that prove inadequate in explaining why knives slide into backs and friends turn into foes.

Three lengthy flashbacks, narrated by different characters to place Sulaiman’s actions in context but leading to the same conclusion, help pin a halo and wings onto this righteous anti-hero. Forever frozen in Robin Hood mould, Sulaiman continues to be interesting because of Fahadh Faasil’s ability to rapidly switch emotional registers and convey charisma and authority without visible effort.

Nimisha Sajayan in Malik (2021). Courtesy Anto Joseph Film Company.

Among the actors who distinguish themselves in this traffic jam of ideas and flourishes are Dileesh Pothan and Vinay Fortt. Pothan’s Abu, who has “Trust me not” all but tattooed on his forehead, is an effective blackheart in a politician’s white threads. Vinay Forrt is equally good as the hapless David, who is easily swayed by lies and rhetoric. Sanal Aman is excellent as David’s son, who finds history repeating itself in tragic ways.

As Sulaiman’s wife Roseline, Nimisha Sajayan grimaces and scowls her way through a poorly defined character. The lack of chemistry between Roseline and Sulaiman makes her an implausible and bad-tempered godmother to this movie’s saintly godfather.

Malik (2021).