Jeethu Joseph’s new film 12th Man takes off with some promise, but ends as ordinary despite its credentials and cast.
A team between actor Mohanlal and director Jeethu Joseph will always carry with it a burden of high expectations. The two, after all, made the 2013 blockbuster Drishyam which not only broke movie records among mainstream Malayalam film viewers but also captured nationwide attention and spawned remakes from several Indian film industries. By the time Drishyam 2 came, India was immersed in the OTT era and fell in love with this sequel in its original language itself, making it one of the most talked about releases of the pandemic.
But Drishyam sounded like a Japanese literary thriller, Jeethu denied reading it before his script was ready and said he was inspired by a real-life incident. The film’s appeal extended far beyond the murder and cover-up at its center anyway. DrishyamThe strength of lies in the location of a thrilling mystery whose bases could be transported to any country on the globe, its entertaining realism, its socio-cultural perspectives, its sense of humor, its complex characterization and the very human being of two families in distress.
As a die-hard Agatha Christie fan, I confess that I had mixed feelings when I heard about Jeethu’s new collaboration with Lalettan. The director compared 12and Man: revealing the shadows to the works of the great British novelist while informing the press that this is a saga of 12 people gathered in one place and which takes place largely over one day. The trailer further revealed these ingredients: 11 friends, multiple secrets, an intruder (the 12and title man), at night, a sudden death. Uh oh…
It’s one thing to forgive a single instance of “inspiration,” but did this new venture indicate a failure of the imagination?? Where would Jeethu be, as with Drishyamreshaping a central idea into a brilliant, all-Indian adaptation?
Now that 12and Male came out, it can be said with clarity that it is not a Christie copy, it simply pays homage to a structure she loved: a group of people forced to stay in a place where there was a mystifying death and a detective holding court. How Jeethu and the screenwriters, Sunir Kheterpal (credited for story) and KR Krishnakumar (screenplay and dialogues), build on this core is the question to consider now.
In 12and Male, 11 young people – college friends and their spouses – gather for a party at a hill station in the beautiful remote countryside of Kerala when an offensive stranger (Mohanlal) disturbs their peace. Soon after, the fun and banter turns into a game between friends that threatens to destroy the bonds maintained for many years.
As tensions explode on their faces, a tragic death occurs. During the all-night investigation, many terrible truths are uncovered.
12and MaleThe first hour of is engaging as it becomes increasingly clear with each passing minute that there’s a lot buried beneath the apparent bond between these supposed cronies. Krishnakumar’s writing is solid as he depicts the game between the friends starting out in a natural and believable way, and how each is forced to participate – and stay – although one by one they all become uncomfortable with it.
The first reveal comes from an unexpected and smoothly written turn of events. The fast the denouement of bonhomie among the gathering is well written and directed.
After the death at the resort, you may be wondering why the friends allow themselves to be subjected to an often extrajudicial investigation (they grant the investigator access to their phones and do not object to bullying) , but there is a credible source for an explanation: they each have personal, professional and/or financial compulsions to return to town immediately, so they are in a hurry to get it over with. Besides, the detective plays on their psychology who was also at work during their game – each person is likely to be afraid to withdraw, for fear of making others suspect that he alone has something to hide; some think they are smart enough to outsmart others.
With the premise firmly established, Mohanlal thriving as the annoying intruder in this assembly, and a cast of reliable, likeable, and well-known young actors playing the friends, 12and Male should have succeeded in its second act. Instead, the procedures become progressively less absorbing due to various factors.
The script does not pass a lot time on character development. As a result, the public has little reason to invest in any of these people or their fate. The whole set doesn’t have to be written in detail, but none of them here are. The only one who stands out from the others in a very obvious way is Fida (played by Leona Lishoy) who is a stereotype of the intelligent and independent single woman seen through a conservative Indian gaze more common in Hindi than in Malayalam cinema: she is divorced , and his smoking habit is conspicuously highlighted. I could almost imagine a list of descriptors for each of the 11 concept stage in which Fida was labeled “the modern guy”. Add to that a spurious remark about the singleton status of Mohanlal’s character, Chandrashekhar, and you should know that this is not a conscious portrayal of social prejudice in Malayali/Indian society by the writers, but their own subconscious bias revealing itself.
Although the initial twists in 12and Male have considerable surprise value, each turn of events in the second half is less convincing than the last.
Beyond its police aspect, 12and Male lacks the sociological and cultural details that have enriched Drishyam. To begin with, the Drishyams would have been half the movies they were without it chaaya kada, Georgekutty’s enthusiasm for Malayalam cinema, the particular architecture of these houses and these colorful inhabitants. On the other hand, the friends of 12th man could be from any town in Kerala; frankly, they could be Malayalis from any major Indian city; and apart from the fact that they speak Malayalam, nothing particularly distinguishes them from any well-to-do, urban, urban Indian in any Indian metropolis.
jeethu here also does this thing too many contemporary Malayalam filmmakers do when they consciously craft their films as some products for a pan-India market rather than a cinema that develops organically: the tendency is to insert a song or two with Hindi and/or English lyrics into their soundtrack as if they were the languages of universality and hipness (c’mon!). These numbers are almost always incongruous with their context.
12and Male begins and ends with a English composition by Anil Johnson which is woven into an innovatively arranged opening credits. Despite its beauty and the beautiful voice of Souparnika Rajgopal, the overall effect of the writing choices and the decision to feature this song in the film is that watching 12and Male it’s like eating McDonald’s fast food on a transcontinental trip – it’s standardized and therefore safe for those who aren’t experienced, it’s hygienic and inexpensive, and it can never give the pleasure and the excitement of the diversity of flavors in world cuisine. This cinematic approach to McDonald’s strips away the very quality that made the Malayalam New New Wave popular across India: a rootedness that leads to universal relatability.
It might have been wise to lower the bar of expectations from the start 12and Malewhen a sudden burst of song at a party gets the friends dancing, not like normal people do in real life, but by arranging as if they were aware that they are characters in a film, not real people, and therefore have to face the camera and us, the audience.
Jeethu Joseph’s new film takes off with some promise, but ends up as ordinary despite its credentials and cast (although I wonder why Siddique was wasted on a few-second appearance that adds nothing to the narrative). Everyone does a fairly decent job, but no one – not even Mohanlal – stands out.
12and Male it’s enough entertainment while it lasts, but “good enough” and “decent enough” are hardly acceptable from the team that gave us the Drishyams.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)
12and The Man Is Streaming On Disney+ Hotstar
Anna MM Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specializes in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other sociopolitical concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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