Watching Venu’s Munnariyipu reminded me of an article I read recently – that of a 70-year old American man named Lawrence John Ripple who robbed a bank so that he could go to jail. The reason for this: he couldn’t stand his wife. C.K Raghavan, the character that Mammootty plays in the film, reminded me of Lawrence. Now, he also reminded me of a 1991 comedy starring Joe Pesci called My Cousin Vinny. In that, he plays a small-town lawyer called Vinny who at one point has to stay in jail for a short while because the judge couldn’t digest his attitude inside the courtroom. His girlfriend bails him out several times but one day he tells her not to because he sleeps better inside the jail than anywhere else.
The film also reminded me of the recent David Fincher film Gone Girl – a dark satire on the institution of marriage. Munnariyippu was marketed as a mystery thriller but there is much more going on below the surface. I thought there was some dark, twisted humor lurking underneath. It begins with a freelance journalist Anjali (played by Aparna Gopinath) who is given an assignment by a famous editor: to ghostwrite the memoir of a jail warden (played by Nedumudi Venu). The proud warden intends to talk in detail of his achievements and the various strategies he has come up with for the rehabilitation of the prisoners. It’s then that Anjali is introduced to a timid man standing in the corner who happens to be Raghavan. The warden informs her that he served 15 years in jail for murdering two women, one of whom was his wife and the other a lady he worked for. She learns that Raghavan has spent an additional time inside because he preferred the comfort of the jail to whatever was waiting for him outside.
After serving his prescribed time, he opted to stay around and assist the warden, cleaning his office and involved in other menial work. At night he goes inside his jail cell to sleep. He also prefers having his food inside the cell. When the warden leaves, Raghavan whispers to her that he is innocent of his crimes. This piques her interest. She learns that everyone believes that Raghavan killed those women as the evidence was all against him. But he still maintains that he didn’t do it. She decides to write an article on him which is published and turns him into an instant celebrity. This brings her to the attention of the leading publishers in the country who offer her a contract to write a book on him. She agrees to sign the contract. The only problem in front of her is this: Raghavan has never disclosed anything about his life before. The article she wrote on him doesn’t contain any of his personal details and this she hopes to rectify through the book.
Raghavan is revealed to be an intelligent man who is quite fond of philosophy. Anjali and her bosses are quite spellbound by this man’s ideas. Everyone is eager to know the man further and get to learn the actual truth about him. Anjali has high hopes and she thinks this book will get her the much-deserved fame she has been too desperate for. However, Raghavan proves to be a very stubborn man and she has a difficult time getting him to write even one line. Repeated attempts to coax and pressure him all turn out to be futile. Meanwhile, the warden is disappointed with the fact that she is ignoring him and at the same time, the publishers are losing their patience and constantly keep reminding her of the deadline. This frustrates her even more. When she decides to get this over with once and for all, this leads to an intense confrontation in which she learns a shattering truth about Raghavan.
It was nice to see Mammootty bring out the ‘actor’ in him once again and doing a role that was reminiscent of his characters from films like Sukrutham, Mathilukal and to some extent, Vidheyan. The sign of a great performance is when we leave the theater and it staying with us long after the film has ended. Sometimes you might even start talking and behaving like this character and that is a sure sign of a memorable performance. There is some unexpected humor too and this comes in the form of a kid who befriends Raghavan. I got a kick out of the scene where he asks Raghavan if he knows who Dulquar Salman is. And also the cameo scene of Prithviraj as Anjali’s prospective groom who gives her some sage advice. (Hey, that advice could be one of the film’s messages is too.)
Is Raghavan really innocent? Is this quiet and well-mannered individual capable of murder? Or was he framed by someone? Questions like these pop up on the mind of every viewer as the film slowly progresses. When Raghavan finally kills Anjali, some found it shocking while some others found it a bit predictable. But the real fun doesn’t lie in the ending. It lies in how we look at the rest of the film on the basis of this ending. It compels us to watch the film once again and find out what motivated him to kill these women. The potential clue – or should I say, clues – show up in one or two scenes. I’ll talk about the scene that I’m very sure of. When a couple of strangers invite Raghavan to a bar, he talks about living without any restrictions and how a life lived in fear is pathetic. When they ask him how then, did he manage to survive inside such a restrictive environment as a prison cell, he tells them that his idea of freedom is different from theirs.
Perhaps the two women he murdered were too controlling and he felt too claustrophobic in their presence. Anjali certainly was. She was selfish too. This book was only going to help her and not him. Every visit of hers felt like a teacher repeatedly asking a student to turn in his assignment. Raghavan was initially apprehensive about moving out of jail. He didn’t know what he would do once he got out. He spent most of his life taking an odd comfort in the solitude of the prison walls. When he finally makes a small attempt to adjust to his new life, Anjali makes things difficult for him again. Who are we supposed to sympathize with here – Anjali or Raghavan? We are left confused – in a good way, of course – because there are no good guys or bad guys here. Everyone has something unlikable about them, even Raghavan. When she finds out that he hasn’t written a single word, she chides him and makes him feel miserable.
This probably made him feel that it was much better to stay in jail than live in this stifling hellhole. Perhaps this film is a satire on the institution of marriage. When the revelation comes that Raghavan had indeed written everything that had happened in the past – the truth – we are suddenly taken in a different direction. Okay, so he has written everything, but why did he kill her? This is why I think of the ending as a sick, twisted joke and the entire film as a pitch-black satire. Up until that point, Anjali’s behavior was extremely annoying and for a while, we start to feel pity for Raghavan. Is the ending supposed to be a cathartic one, in a strange way? Considering the title of the film, I think it is meant to be a warning to all of us. Some people are better left alone in their “cages” and it wouldn’t be wise to know all their secrets. The intrusion of someone’s privacy is not a good thing, you see.