Appan, a film that could have perhaps come only from Malayalam cinema, is never afraid of speaking the unspeakable. Itty (Alencier Ley Lopez) is first heard rather than seen. The song that he is singing off-key sounds like a taunt, which is just what it is.

Itty, who is paralysed from the waist down and confined to his bed, gets his kicks from verbally harassing his wife Kutyamma (Pauly Valsan), son Noonju (Sunny Wayne) and daughter-in-law Rosy (Ananya). They pray every waking minute for Itty’s death, but he lives and lives, raining profanity and worse on his hapless kin, not even sparing his grandson Abel (Dhrupad Krishna).

Maju’s drama, which is out on SonyLIV, has the quality of a tragicomic novel in its remorseless exploration of a family pushed to boiling point by a patriarch from hell. Maju’s screenplay, written with R Jayakumar, makes it clear that Itty’s behaviour isn’t a result of his illness.

A history of male violence is contained in Itty’s semi-mobile body, his always-shrieking voice and his contemptuous demeanour. As his old friend Varghese (Anil K Sivaram) perceptively remarks, Itty, who used to be an expert arrack brewer, is the type of person who will neither share his drink nor the contents of the recipe.

The situation is complicated by the entry of Sheela (Radhika Radhakrishnan), a sex worker with old ties to Itty. It gets so bad that Kuttyamma tearfully tells Noonju, if I ever get sick, I won’t linger on my way to the grave.

Alencier Ley Lopez in Appan (2022). Courtesy Tiny Hands Productions/Sunny Wayne Productions/Sony LIV.

Christian themes of suffering, temptation and absolution slosh about in a nightmare that leads all the way up to Christmas. Appan unsparingly takes viewers into a household deeply damaged by its male head and struggling to hold on to basic human decency. Itty’s barbs cut deepest for Noonju, who worries that he will turn out to be just like his father.

There are times when Appan’s staging gives the feel of a television soap or a play. The early balance between dark comedy and disturbing cruelty is ungainly. There are only so many laughs to be had from watching an elderly man who refuses to kick the bucket wound his family members with his serrated tongue.

The talk-heavy script sets up its fundamental conflict very early, and then lingers on for longer than it should in the interests of stretching out the misery. Appan gets richer with Sheela’s arrival. The presence of this outsider changes the domestic matrix in unpredictable ways. The later portions deftly lay out the moral dilemma that faces Noonju: blood might be thicker than water, but what should be done when the blood itself is putrefied?

The 129-minute film gets its ballast from its uncompromising depiction of toxic masculinity, the utterly believable characters, and the powerhouse performances. We have seen countless accounts of dysfunctional families before. But not too many films have the courage to identify the roots of the problem as Appan.

All we will say about Alencier Ley Lopez’s performance is that you wish the worst upon Itty seconds after seeing him. Sunny Wayne suffers beautifully as Noonju, while Radhika Radhakrishnan is compelling as Sheela, who gives as good as she gets.

Appan (2022).