The slow corruption and the rise & fall are the backbone of the American crime epic. The likes of Little Caesar and Scarface gave birth to the genre, and in the seventy-five years hence, every nation that ever saw organized crime also saw its own mob film. Many were influenced by Hollywood, some more than others, but perhaps it’s Bollywood, and regional off-shoots like Tollywood and Kollywood (whose very names invoke that influence) which tend to be the most forthcoming about their western DNA. In that sense, Rajiv Ravi’s Kammattipadam, set in the titular Kerala slum, is a long lost descendant of the American mob movie. Ravi shot several films for Anurag Kashyap, a director just as naked in his influences (his riff on the American thriller, Psycho Raman, plays at Fantastic Fest this weekend), so Ravi is no stranger to re-purposing the tropes and structures of American genre works, in this case, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. But Malayalam-language Kammattipadam differs from its forefathers in one key area. By virtue of being about Dalits, once untouchables and still the lowest rung on the caste ladder, it cannot be about rise & fall. Only fall or escape.
The options presented to Kammattipadam's darker-skinned characters never involve alternatives to criminal corruption. They turn to it as a necessity at an early age, and it follows them wherever they go. Don’t let the runtime fool you, its three hours breeze by as quickly as a Netflix binge-watch. I wish the four-hour director’s cut had been ready in time for Fantastic Fest, but any amount of time would feel too short with these characters. The film’s non-linear structure presents itself in the form of memories, specifically those of a gravely injured security guard as he rides a bus in search of his childhood friend after receiving a mysterious phone call. Dulquer Salman’s Krishnan, the non-Dalit protagonist, is the conventionally attractive Indian lead tasked with carrying the story, but his function in the narrative isn’t to explore class divides in order to satiate privileged viewers. He too starts out a slum-dweller, living around the corner from Balan and Ganga (the explosive Manikandan Achari and the inviting Vinayakan), dark-skinned, buck-toothed brothers whom he befriends at an early age. He’s also been in love with Dalit girl Anita for about as long, and while these divides exist for the rest of society, they don’t for Krishnan and his friends.
That isn’t to say the remnants of the caste system don’t affect their lives. Krishnan’s parents don’t approve of him spending time with Anita, Balan’s don’t wish him to marry a Christian girl, and Ganga is a far more likely match for Krishnan’s crush since they’re both from the same social class. This is all a backdrop for a story that spans decades, with the trio of Krishnan, Balan and Ganga being roped into petty crime (and then organized extortion) as the years go by. The film is impeccably cast, with three different actors playing the trio in four different decades. Think Slumdog Millionaire, only they don’t magically sound like they went to British schools all of a sudden. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say each character had been cast exclusively from the same family. This hyper-accurate actor selection is a vital part of the text (as vital as Mason growing up before our eyes in Boyhood), because the trio’s relationship resonates from one decade to the next in a way that makes transitions feel welcoming.
The characters live and breathe up on the silver screen, and they justify the film’s mammoth 177 minutes by spending time away from criminal activities, having drinks and getting a little too involved in each other’s social lives. Their happy reunions are marked by in-jokes, and inter-personal body language so naturalistic it’s nigh impossible to spot the artifice. Their not-so-happy ones however feel more operatic, with animosity bubbling just under the surface, barely able to contain itself, and it transitions between the two rhythmically and with ease.
Vinayakan and Achari’s Dalit brothers make for the perfect foil to Salman’s light-skinned, boyish Krishnan, who fits the archetype of the reserved-yet-charming Indian hero like a perfectly tailored suit. The brothers are boisterous and energetic, and their authenticity bleeds into every word, be it during a quiet moment of conflict or a bombastic wedding celebration. They dance not like the choreographed Indian lead, but like the Indian man on the street, uncoordinated yet bursting with unfettered passion. The trio get along famously, but where they diverge is the film’s implicit (and most subtle) commentary on the system it tackles. The film’s very structure – a man returning home to find his long lost friends – is predicated on the idea that Krishnan is capable of escaping in the first place. He can leave crime, Kammattipadam and his friends behind if he wants to. Ganga and Balan, on the other hand, have no such luxury.
The film is exciting so long as the trio is caught up in their youthful arrogance. Even amidst all the grizzly violence, their zesty brotherhood carries the film’s first half through a multitude of brawls and chase scenes, but its move away from the excitement of criminal camaraderie is marked by the sobering realization that the rural caste system is all-permeating, and that Dalits can be treated as disposable. Even when all this is swept under the rug, and the slums are cleared in order to construct modern skyscrapers, caste creeps its way back in like a Midas touch, only it turns everything it touches to rust… yet strangely, the biggest refutation of that central rigidity is the existence of the film itself.
It cuts through the colourism of Indian cinema, allowing dark skin to be beautiful and violent and loving all at once (even granting its ‘heroines’ narrative agency beyond their respective men), and it does so while rejecting the brouhaha of the South Indian stylism. It trades in excess for a key focus on characters, isolating them their darkest moments – be it grief or merely learning to hold a sword – while stepping back and showcasing their togetherness in the form of messily composed group portraits, whether battling rival gangs or simply shooting the shit.
Kammattipadam is a riveting saga, bursting with angst at modern class issues and propelled by characters that make it hard to lift your gaze at any point during its runtime. More than factual information, it provides emotional context for its crime and caste experiences, allowing you to feel part of a scrappy family backed into a corner, keeping itself together through knives and fisticuffs, and the infectious excitement therein. A strong argument for authenticity in an industry that often lacks it, it’s an epic in the true sense of the word, as grand and poetic as it is personal.