Debut director Jishnu Sreekandan’s Pidikittapulli (Fugitive), a comic caper, opens to a night of coincidences. A wealthy businessman, known for his notorious ways (Major Ravi), gets visited by a friend-turned-foe (Kannan Pattambi). A goon and his clumsy assistant (Saiju Kurup) mess up a burglary attempt. A lowly architect (Sunny Wayne) who is in love with his boss’s daughter (Ahaana Krishna) gets involved in an unintended abduction initiated by his colleague (Baiju Santhosh). A gym instructor (Lalu Alex), high on weed, imagines himself as a character from a Hindu epic and launches a series of blunders.

Comedy is a genre that new Malayalam cinema has been struggling with. A departure from the pre-2000 era comedies, the recent films are straight-faced, without overly relying on the actors’ body language or facial expressions but stem from absurd situations seamlessly woven into the main story. Barring a few films like Neram (Alphonse Puthren, 2013), Kunjiramayanam (Basil Joseph, 2015) and Padayottam (Rafeek Ibrahim, 2018), the new Malayalam comedies have not been able to find remarkable success.

Pidikittapulli is an uneven blend of the old and the new – the confusion comedy that Priyadarshan was a master of, and the pop-coloured absurd urban humour of Padayottam and Soodhu Kavvum (Tamil, 2013). The narrative relies a lot on dialogues that sound unscripted. The characters are not exceptionally smart and are prone to making bad decisions. The crimes in the plot, which get a comical treatment, eventually pay off. The bad guy, who deceived his friends and lover, wins.

The film gets its casting spot on. Baiju, for one, is a familiar and ever-effective comedian who can whip up a riot every time he is on the screen. But there is only so much the comedians can do in a movie that is unaware of the importance of being smarter than its characters, of the line that separates whimsical from intellectual sterility.

The narrative is incoherent, constructed of convoluted moments. So much so that the viewer is likely to lose sight of the central narrative conflict. Even the most madcap comedy cannot function without an internal logic that binds the characters and situations. It is not believable that two architects decide to roll up their unconscious boss in a carpet and stuff him into the boot of a car while they could have tried to revive him. When someone suggests that the inert man be taken to a hospital, the accidental abductors protest. Because none of them is dressed appropriately (!) to greet the boss. It is impossible to care for any of the characters who act like overgrown children acting on impulse.

And it is hardly funny. The scenes are staged ungracefully, without a point of focus. The unsubtle and ceaseless background score, at times, sounds uncannily similar to the famous BGM piece of Soodhu Kavvum. Except for a few times when a line of dialogue or an interaction elicits a chuckle, Pidikittapulli is a snoozefest that cannot tie its numerous loose-ends together.

If Jude Anthony Joseph, in a cameo appearance in a song-and-dance sequence, does the worst impression of a Romeo, Sunny Wayne pulls off the most unconvincing on-screen sneeze. Saiju Kurup and Lalu Alex, despite the poorly-written roles, bring some laughs to the table thanks to their natural charm.

In the last two pandemic-hit years, the production and distribution of movies in India have leapt longer than they have in 10 years. Pidikittapulli, the first Malayalam movie to get a direct-to-digital premiere on Jio Cinema, is available to watch for free for subscribers of the Jio mobile connection. A movie given away as a freebie for the customers of a SIM card is a significant indicator of mainstream cinema’s fall from grace. The move announces that cinema is no longer a form of art that requires an investment from the artist and the viewers – it is just a disposable consumer good.

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