Geethu Mohandas's Moothon represents the latest phase in forward-thinking producer Anurag Kashyap's ongoing project to decentralise a film industry most closely associated with Mumbai. It opens, for one, with a breezy sketch of island life. A young boy, Mulla (Sanjana Dipu), raised by ogre-like guardian Moosa (Dileesh Pothan, who resembles an especially irascible Luis Guzman), submits to bullying from his contemporaries, and confesses to missing an older brother who apparently served as his protector. One dark night, with a storm blowing in, Mulla sets off in search of this sibling in a small sailboat, only to be swallowed up by a giant wave and spat out on the banks of a bustling, unnamed city. (This is Mumbai, but Mumbai made unfamiliar, mythic.) That drift, it transpires, isn't the only movement going on here. Moothon is the Indian cinema detaching itself from Shakespeare, wellspring of so many of its narrative tropes, and tacking instead in the direction of the Dickensian. The island looks like an analogue of the marshland of Great Expectations; the city scenes suggest an Asian rewrite of Oliver Twist. The kid escapes from an orphanage to fall in with a gang of criminals headed by the Nancy-like moll Rosy (Sobhita Dhulipala, far less upright and decorous than she is in Amazon's Made in Heaven) and the hulking Bhai (regional superstar Nivin Pauly), who takes delivery of the boy as if he were a rescue dog, and whose idea of mentoring is to encourage Mulla to slit a goat's throat.
All of which should warn you that the emergent, very promising Mohandas (better known as an actress in her homeland) and Kashyap (who gave us 2017's Mukkabaaz/The Brawler and the grand guignol of Netflix's Sacred Games) aren't pulling any of their punches here. These filmmakers have clearly been drawn towards the darkness in Dickens, yet Moothon proves altogether more unflinching in its depiction of cruelty than the vaguely comparable Slumdog Millionaire, venturing some distance beyond the boundaries of the Oscar winner's 12A certificate. Don't allow very young viewers in sight of it; chances are they'd be scarred for life. Mulla faces stark peril everywhere he turns: pestered by a pederast at the orphanage, he's later scooped up by thugs who gag and hogtie him before relieving themselves on his helpless form. "Everyone likes a fairytale," we're told early on; what follows suggests an effort to restore the Grimm blood and bruises that the Disney corporation has spent the best part of a century photoshopping out. (I saw the film on the same day the PG-rated Maleficent sequel opened in multiplexes worldwide: the contrast between the two projects is stark, to say the least.) This Twist comes with a twist, however.
At its halfway mark, Moothon undergoes a rupture, not unlike those in certain Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies, and re-emerges in gentler, more lyrical territory: back on the island we started at, where Bhai, the film's Fagin, gets what is essentially an origin story both for his scars and his apparent heartlessness - a deviation that sheds new light on young Mulla's quest. In this Bhai's growing friendship with a Deaf man (Roshan Mathew, using his hands most eloquently, where everyone around him is talking with their fists), we spy a tenderness, and perhaps the possibility of something more besides: one Moonlight-inspired tableau of the two men bathing at sundown had a packed house at last year's Mumbai festival holding its breath. (Things are loosening up in India... just gradually.) Such nuanced, adult material will come as a jolt to anybody still labouring under the mistaken belief Moothon is a kiddies' adventure movie, and it's the kind of jolt by which Kashyap productions have typically aimed to shake the complacency out of a narrative, audience and industry, chasing the pummelling with something poetic, suffixing the film's uglier effects with a quietly beautiful and touching cause. A third act returning us to the present day, while as unpredictable as anything else here, plays like a bit of a stumble - but there's also plenty of evidence that regional cinema is where the Indian film industry is presently taking most of its biggest swings. In Moothon, more of these make contact than not.
Moothon streams as part of this year's London Indian Film Festival at 8pm tonight; it streams again next Friday at 8pm. Tickets and further details can be found here.