A severed hand frantically jumps around on the screen. Everyone in the room looks at the hand, horrified. A few more bombs are blasted, and a few lanky, ominous-looking people armed with weapons enter the room. Sounds pretty gory, right? Well, this scene unfolds in the middle of the recent Malayalam movie Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (Moonlit Night, 2023) by Murphy Devasy. The film is a survival slasher drama that has enough going to keep you hooked till the end. The premise is nothing new, but the tension starts from the beginning and ensures the audience never gets bored.

As is evident from the trailer, the director here has dealt with various human sins that almost all mortals are guilty of. The group of friends whose trip sets the movie’s premise keeps secrets from each other. There is an unmistakable vibe of dominance from the character Dominic over Peter and Rajeev, who are partners in an organic farming business. Now enters Kurien, badly caught up with poor financial investments. As he visits his money lender Achayan, he meets his other three buddies there, who are in a business partnership with the same person. One thing leads to the other, and Kurein sees an opportunity to get his sunken financial ship float with the help of his old college friends.

The character of Kurien is shown to be sly, quickly understanding the cracks between the partnership of Peter, Rajeev, Dominic, and Paul. He stokes Dominic’s ego, who is already frustrated with Peter and Rajeev and their way of doing business. Setting his plan in motion, Kurein takes his friends and a young relative on a trip to Shimoga to get them to buy off the property he kept mortgaged to Achayan. It is essential to understand that these people only appear as friends on the surface. All of them, given a chance, will stab the other in the back, except for maybe Peter and Rajeev.

Dominic, with his own intelligence, visits Achayan and sets a separate deal with him that would profit him both ways. On the other hand, Peter is vehemently opposed to the deal for practical reasons. But Dominic, with his arrogance and greed, ensures that the group lands at Shimoga. Once there, the mood changes for a while as the men indulge in merry-making. However, the situation tenses with the arrival of Irumban, who was mentioned previously and was hinted to have some trouble with Kurien. Things get further tense when Irumban drops off a dead pig from his jeep and asks the group to roast it.

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At this point, it becomes evident that every group member has something of their own going on in their minds. They are all frustrated and troubled individuals trying to fulfill their sense of pride, greed, or envy. The past troubles between Irumban and Kurein are not discussed in detail, though it is hinted that it was something serious, and Irumban has this habit of getting into and causing trouble.

The card game they start playing is also very symbolic as Peter, a character shown to be weak, loses soon and is out of the game, resembling how Dominic and Paul plan to throw him out of business as well. The character of Irumban is given the primary spotlight. And thanks to the impeccable acting of Chemban Vinod Jose, he feels like the living embodiment of the devil himself.

Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (2023) Movie Review
A still from Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (2023)

As the card game goes on, Rajeev, Peter, and their driver go out to check the roast. Things quickly start escalating from here as we discover that Rajeev has been killed. By whom, why, or how is not clear. With the first death in the group, the cracks now widen. The usual blame game begins where everyone accuses the other one for getting them into this trouble. A few more lies come to light, further showing the fragility of their friendship.

With the story’s progression, the film shows one character after another taking the hit. They all become desperate for survival, each doing things they feel will keep them safe. While at the beginning of their journey, they were running away from themselves and trying to find something for their future needs, the story brings them to a situation where they all forget about everything they were previously running from and focus on only making it out alive.

After a while, the killers come to the forefront. They appear to be the locals of the land – the men of the forest. It’s interesting how these people living close to nature are shown as feral beings; any modern and fake sophistication does not hide their raw animal energy. On the other hand, this group of friends with similar qualities is given a cloak of urban mannerisms and civility. But, the urban civilians shed off their masks when the attackers strike from the front. Man’s inherent desire to survive surfaces, and these friends show that they would go to any length to keep themselves safe.

While it was evident from the beginning that they didn’t care about each other, this attack makes it even more apparent. Interestingly, Irumban and Kurein are stuck together in a room. As Kurein insists that they should give up Aneesh, the driver, to the attackers as they must have come for him, Irumban finally confesses that he has caused this whole trouble. It is for him that those attackers are here, killing off the innocent members of the group.

This devastates Kurien, but Irumban doesn’t express any remorse. Furthermore, he stoically describes the grim episode that led him to nonchalantly shoot a tribal guy. Now, his friends and family had come to the villa to seek revenge and kill Irumban. Despite knowing the horrible truth about Irumban, Kurein decides to help him against his better judgment, which costs him his life.

We see Irumban escaping, and it seems that, like the Devil himself, it is almost impossible to defeat him. He ruthlessly beats the other locals who, by no means, can stand in front of him. As they run through the vast jungle and fight, Irumban appears as a menacing and all-powerful presence who cannot be stopped at any cost.

Nalla Nilavulla Rathri ends on a cliffhanger note where the scope for a sequel has been left open. Along with Irumban, we are shown that Peter, Paul, and Aneesh have also been able to escape. Upon seeing them in the same car, Irumban gives a carefree smile and joins them. While the story could have been squeezed into a shorter running time, one interesting thing about the film is the portrayal of the character of Irumban. If we consider him the Devil in human form, the locals can be compared to God.

As the rightful owners of the land, the locals peacefully live their lives. It is the people from the outside, with their greed, pride, envy, and wrath, who cause trouble to these people. The fight between Irumban and the locals in the jungle can be seen as a classic conflict between man versus nature, where man seems to be winning because of his cunning tricks and unbelievable strength, which he has found from nature only. However, considering the film’s ending, nature doesn’t seem to be entirely on the losing side.

With a pretty good BGM and a storyline, Nalla Nilavulla Rathri does shine at various moments. Each character personifies one sinning quality or the other and is punished accordingly. However, Irumban seems to be the worst of the lot with all the deadly sins combined, yet he goes unscathed. However, with the cliffhanger ending, who knows what his fate will be?

Read More: 25 Greatest Malayalam Movies of All Time

Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (2023) Movie: Baburaj, Chemban Vinod Jose, Jinu Joseph, Binu Pappu
Nalla Nilavulla Rathri (2023) Movie Genre: Action, Comedy, Thriller | Runtime: 2h 6m
Where to watch Nalla Nilavulla Rathri

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

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