Nayattu is the most recent Malayalam film to find favor among pan-India cinephiles and for good reason. The title of the film means ‘The Hunt’ and it’s a brilliant play on the movie’s theme. It definitely has a hunt as its central point of conflict, but in a riveting inversion of the usual norm, both the hunters and the hunted are police officers. It’s a telling portrait of how we’re all casually disposable cogs in a system that works on the top dog-eat-dog principle and laughs at our pithy attempts at arguing otherwise; no matter what your role in the system, a time can come to throw you to the wolves.

The beginning sets the tone for the rest of the film. A tug-of-war championship final is going on and the Kerala Police’s team is up against a local team. The irony here being that the local team actually has a policeman in their ranks, the recently joined Praveen Michael (Kunchacko Boban), and the resentment it engenders in the Police team festers. He reports to duty at his station and soon forms a kinship with grizzled veteran Maniyappan (Joju George) who shows him the lay of the land as they should know it. Nimisha Sajayan plays Sunitha, a young police constable who is having trouble with a few ruffians harassing her family, one of them a relative and feared local heavy. She brings the problem to the station and sets off the chain of events which results in the three unlikely travel partners on the run trying to cross state lines. As the noose around them tightens, the three of them wonder at the machinery of the system which they have served as they were expected to have and which now turns them into scapegoats on the whims of the politicians who are concerned about keeping up appearances in the wake of the elections happening at the time. But who will blink first?

The local flavors of the region are brought into vivid focus in the proceedings. The local thugs, who belong to the historically disadvantaged Dalit class, are made to feel invincible in the face of the support they get from the political parties especially as the elections are just around the corner. Even in the face of police aggression, the attitude is one of arrogant defiance. It’s no wonder there has been some controversy around this portrayal of the thugs as a representative of the class they belong to, but I couldn’t see it. Two of the leads themselves play characters who belong to the same class, so its hardly that the filmmakers are uniformly painting them with the same brush. Instead, what it does brilliantly show is the use of these persons as pawns in the games the various political factions play to ensure their supremacy. Playing to the vote bank is an oft-abused terms these days, but not without reason and this movie does a great job of showing why. It’s not just the criminals too. The cops themselves find themselves at the mercy of these machinations, their fortunes too shifting from those of princely favor to that of outcaste paupers. As Maniyappan says at points in the film, none more so poignantly towards its heartrending finale, he has always played by the rules of the system; been their lapdog when needed and yet it has come to this. And Sunitha has to face up to the truth that despite being a part of the lawmaking force of the state, she still could rely on very little in the form of support when threatened.

The acting is uniformly brilliant. Kunchacko Boban as the relatively inexperienced cop Praveen is the heart of the story through which the audience can identify with everything else and his performance has the usual verve and honesty in its portrayal. The standout performers though have to be Nimisha Sajayan and Joju George. The emotional upheavals of their characters are portrayed with remarkable naturality. Joju George especially will leave a lump in the throat before things come to a close.

This is Martin Prakkat’s first directorial venture since Charlie more than five years ago and its been worth the wait. The complete shift in tones from his previous film too is noteworthy. If Charlie was an excellent film in its own right, it was a peppy, colorful affair, its rich hues and colorful palette reflecting the milieu and characters there. Over here, everything, including the color tones are subdued and gritty, again I’m assuming a conscious choice; reflecting the change from the idealism of Charlie to the grim hopelessness of this film. Either way, this effortless shifting between genres makes me eager to see what he comes up with next. Meanwhile, savor this one and if not yet done, go back and watch Charlie too.