12th Man, a crime drama directed by Jeethu Joseph, is peak pandemic-time filmmaking. It is set in a single location, a resort in Idukki, with a big, fat cast consisting of popular faces, headlined by Mohanlal. When Shiny (Anusree), one of the eleven friends having a get together at the resort, is found dead in a trench, Chandrasekhar (Mohanlal), a deputy superintendent of police who had been holidaying at the same resort, gets down to business and starts grilling the young men and women. There are twists in the story, brutal betrayal and revelations that shatter the relationship of the eleven friends at the centre of the film.
But 12th Man is not an especially smart film. The plot goes in circles, from one red herring to another, yet it cannot outwit the viewer who has, in all these years, been trained at noticing the patterns. The last one to speak cannot be the killer, it must be the quietest person in the room, whom the viewer had not suspected at any point because the narrative had kept the others in a strong shadow of a doubt. One of the most famous films in this format, Knives Out (2019), had excellent writing and filmmaking that put the viewer on edge throughout the narrative, staying miles ahead of the viewer’s deductions, bringing everything to a brilliantly poignant finale. Jeethu Joseph’s film is, most importantly, amateurishly insensitive. It does not care about the dead or the human frailties that led to the murder. 12th Man, unlike the dark intrigue stuffed into its name, is a soap-operatic film founded on archaic morality. It displays strong voyeuristic tendencies, presenting female desire and libido as criminal. For one, a blurry sight of a neighbour, a friend of many years, in a tight embrace with a man drives one of the characters to take out her phone and shoots it. The narrative frames the event in such a way that the lovers look vicious and the one with the phone camera a moral crusader.
The characterisation of Chandrasekhar swells with contradictions. He is, in the early scenes, an unabashed pervert who barges into private spaces and talks to young women in a language laced with sexual innuendoes. The film, like a troll imparting wisdom on social media, indicates that a pervert who doesn’t hide his perverseness could be just a goodhearted, decent man having some fun. Mohanlal plays the role like a ghost of one of his vintage characters, Kanimangalam Jagannathan or Poovalli Induchoodan, men who possess a twisted sense of humour.
Another most striking feature of the film is costume design for the characters. The friends are dressed alike, in modern clothes of similar shades of black with a dash of lighter colours. They are identical, not just in their fashion sense but also in behaviour. It is impossible to recognise them by their dialogue; they speak alike. The viewer would find the eleven friends equally uninteresting and bland as the production design which is, essentially, a bunch of tacky table lamps.
No wonder none of the young actors come off as memorable. They are merely functional, like Satheesh Kurup’s cinematography which dutifully inserts shadows, fog, warm lights, and some gimmicks into the mix to create eeriness. Never does it occurs to the viewers that the group share a bond. Jeethu Joseph is infamous for crude expository dialogue writing and he continues to do that in 12th Man. In the opening sequence, Doctor Nayana (Ssivada), one of the friends, wonder aloud, “Isn’t it amazing to remain friends even after many years of college?!” and her audience, Zacharia (Unni Mukundan) and Annie (Priyanka Nair), members of the same group, agree. Leona Lishoy is a divorcee with a free spirit. Unlike the wives of his friends, she smokes. Jeethu Joseph, who understands how unusual a female smoker is in Kerala society, frequently inserts into the narrative the sight of Lishoy with a cigarette, staring into the vacuum, with a mysterious smile on her lips. Male smokers in the film, though, do not get this coat of intrigue.
Mohanlal and Jeethu Joseph gave the world the wonderful Drishyam which, despite the regressive moral anxiety at its centre, was a fine lesson in storytelling in mainstream cinema. With 12th Man, they counterintuitively reveal the arrogant complacency that has crept into the top order in the Malayalam film industry. This distasteful and utterly plain mystery drama is one of the many OTT projects pitched and executed during the pandemic lockdown. Although they kept the film industry afloat when it was forced to be dormant, several of these films, artistically poor, drag Malayalam cinema many decades behind, turning filmmaking into a mindless job of visual content creation.
This 12th Man review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.