"Kaliyattam" is an interesting film -- it declares its lineage at the very beginning, and the comparison with Shakespeare's "Othello" sets the tone of the film. And yet from the first shot, it is the brilliant reimagining that strikes you. Because the defining feature of the film is NOT its plot--but the characters and the overall mood.
Suresh Gopi plays Perumalayan (the chief of the tribe of Malayans) an overweight artiste (true enough to be real!) who is however regarded highly for his 'theyyam' skills, and famed for his expertise in 'kaliyattam', the ancestor of 'kathakali,' Kerala's premier dance-form. Gopi's character has none of the sexual appeal of Othello (the stuff of much racist stereotyping) and is instead a rather ugly-looking man, remarkable for his artistic virtuosity and little else. It is therefore almost incredible why Thamara (Desdemona, played with a quiet strength of conviction by the underrated Manju Warrier) should fall in love with him, defy her father, her community, and marry him for the sake of an illogical love. The movie's realism underscores this and a distraught Perumalayan's inner complexes stem as much from his wife's unparalleled beauty and high status (strange casting, because Warrier is no Helen of Troy, but shines forth as a rather homely though eloquent beauty) as from his own poor looks and lack of self-worth.
Iago is played by Lal and he plays the role with infectious energy--diabolical, dionysian, yet extremely credible. Lal is a waste in much else he has done in Malayalam cinema, but 'Kaliyattam' should make him proud.
The supporting roles are all played winningly-- watch out esp. for the late Prof Narendran, who plays Thamara's father with a subtle power.
The music (what Indian film is complete without its music!)-- in much of the film, it is subservient to mood and tone, and without detracting from the realism, underscores how 'oral' Indian cinematic traditions are, and how much they borrow from local folk theatre and dance.
The movie will delight adaptation-lovers, but it might be best to rate it on its own terms-- 'Othello' is a searching analysis of one of the most central concerns of Western literature: racism; 'Kaliyattam' is an homage less to Shakespeare than to Jayaraaj's own complex vision of art and the place of the artist in human life.
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