Thoovanathumbikal: The masterpiece that got away from its maker

Cinema entertains, exhilarates and enlightens.

Its ability to relate and inform the viewer through universal, timeless emotions are what contributes to its legacy, now available more easily than ever, for generations to follow.

Some films are a product of its time.

Some telling of man’s reluctance for change and making the same mistakes over and over again.

Some films grow glorious with every passing viewing. Some are overlooked gems in search of an appreciative audience.

Continuing our series designed to acquaint our young, enthusiastic cinephile to the wonders of Indian film-making, we revisit and recommend some of our most beloved, undiscovered or under-rated favourites that should be seen and savoured.

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Padmarajan’s Thoovanathumbikal has become a part of the Malayali mythology, just as its maker himself now possesses mythological status.

Padmarajan’s prolific artistic career (he was also a novelist and a short-story writer), his social and intellectual circle, his imperious personality and his radio voice, his modest success when alive and augmenting importance since death at the age of 45: these facts, in some curious way, share their spirit with and lend credence to, his Thrissur-set film, released in the July of 1987.

A memorable stretch in Thoovanathumbikal shows the protagonist, Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal), inviting his virgin, pussyfooter understudy Rishi (Ashokan) — Nick Carraway to Jayakrishnan’s Gatsby — for a round of lemonade, and then whisking him away to a city bar, and later to a lodge where a prized catch wearing jasmine in her hair waits for Rishi.

A Malayala Manorama article of 2015 states that taking after this stretch in the film, a call for lemonade is today an iconic call sign for booze, and all things clandestine, among Malayalis.

The film’s nerve centre, Clara (played by Sumalatha), an escort, an amateur philosopher, a polyglot, has become the ultimate embodiment of the free-spirited Malayali woman. So much so that even Malayali men who believe that a happy household is one where the man takes charge and the woman simply acquiesces, even men who hold such beliefs, rate Clara very, very highly.

‘If I am a chauvinist, iT’s because I am yet to meet my Clara,’ seems to be the unspoken grouse at work here.

The film’s eddying background score — which suggests oncoming doom initially, then ecstasy — and its use of rain as a metaphor for I-don’t-know-what-exactly are known to send the average Malayali into a state of nervous excitement tending toward deep contemplation.

With that hangdog look on his face, a Malayali then thinks about the life that could have been, and the life that is.

If you wish to strike up a conversation about Thoovanathumbikal, the aforementioned elements are all you need: The metaphorical rain, the score, the free-spirited dame, and the furtive call for drinks, yes… that will do it. You have now cracked open the secret cultural vault of the Malayali — no, make that, of the Malayali man!

As much as I love the film, I also submit that Thoovanathumbikal‘s pull, its legendary status, its central theme about the chaos of Eros, issue at least partly from its proximity to a peculiar kind of masculine myth: the freedom of a man to do his thing, his way, whatever the price.

It’s a myth alright, and just as all myth is gossip grown old, so also was Thoovanathumbikal, before it became a spiritual experience, seen as too mischievous, too salacious, a source of fluttering eyelashes and gaping mouths.

And so, as I sit here recommending the film, I am tempted to add, to the sea of gossip surrounding it, my own whispery unearthing.

Thoovanathumbikal is a film I love, and yet, it’s also, I believe, a film that got away from Padmarajan.

He was in pursuit of a throbbing sensation he couldn’t quite verbalise, couldn’t quite lay out, a sensation around which he stitched a drama whose players were dispersed in his memory, and whom he couldn’t quite unify.

Hamlet’s inwardness is at war with his verbal virtuosity, and if scholars are to be believed, the Prince of Denmark did get away from Shakespeare.

In much the same way, at some point in Thoovanathumbikal‘s making, Padmarajan, I reckon, had intuited that the exuberance of his film was taking it in one direction and its introspective, meditative quality in another.

There were gaps in Thoovanathumbikal‘s conception, and the patchworks that Padmarajan devised to fill those gaps, the culture has ended up reading as part of the film’s poetry.

The rising and falling cadences of the rain sequences; the sudden shifts in the film’s visual style (attributable maybe to the presence of two cinematographers), music director Johnson rather belatedly recruited to compose the melancholic background score — back in 1987, these zigzags must have felt jarring, at least to some section of the audience.

And Padmarajan’s reputation must have got settled in the collective mind of this audience as that of an artist, flapping his arms, trying desperately to grasp at something concrete.

But as it happens in art often, what one generation sees as suicidal or plain hanky-panky, the next sees as enigmatic, audacious, modern. And this is what happened in Thoovanathumbikal‘s case as well.

To a generation that first saw it on VHS or on TV, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the film’s willingness to scramble up tones and textures, its superfluity and looseness, made it seem like a novelistic experiment in an age of neat, moralising enterprises of three-acts.

And this famished generation saw Padmarajan’s determined chasing of a feeling, of a sensation (despite his inability to bring it all together) for what it was: His integrity as an artist.

The heroic quality of Proust derives from the way he so relentlessly pursued the taste of Madeleine cake dipped in tea, until he arrived at his childhood town of Combray with its many particulars.

Padmarajan, despite having taken a good bite of the cake, could never quite get to his Combray.

Even so, the emotional trigger that set off his work had been just as powerful, his impressions just as vivid, and history has judged his lunges at finding a singular, truthful place no less heroic than Proust’s.

Since I am deep into making surmises now, let me add that Thoovanathumbikal is, perhaps, the one film of his that Padmarajan most strongly wished to improve.

If it was a film that got away from him, it was also a film he never gave up on. For evidence of what I am saying, you have to look at his later works, but you have to look awfully well to discern the Negative Capability they inherit from their glorious predecessor.

Into misfires like Aparan and Njan Gandharvan, into the supremely under-rated Season, into the conventional (though palatable) Moonam Pakkam and Innale, into all these films, and often into their best moments, the sweet discomfort of Thoovanathumbikal finds its way, and with it the doom-eagerness of its principal characters.

Speaking of which, has there ever been a more doom-eager character in the whole of Indian Cinema than the elusive existentialist Clara?

Clara is, smart, sophisticated, sexy, the fire of Jayakrishnan’s loins, and yet, her greatest obsession, the subject of her quest, is death.

What makes her deathly quest so unique is the truth that she is not seeking it in the mode of a complainer, or, as a sure-shot route to freedom from societal norms.

Oh no, this Clara, who shares Jayakrishnan’s painfully conflated sense of pleasure and loss, has long thrown sensibleness out of the window, and death to her is simply a leap into eternity.

Why is she this way, we are never told.

We know little about her in definite terms, little except her family background, and tidbits we glean offhand such as how she seems always to have an ear cocked in the direction of a distant music inaudible to all but her, or how she enjoys sex but seems to enjoy post-coital conversations even more.

I have heard more than one woman say that she is nothing more than ‘a libidinous man’s version of an ideal female companion’.

And while this interpretation does hold some water, it hardly acknowledges the fact that Clara is, by no means, merely a lazy pencil sketch.

The primary goal of the Twitter-style review is to destroy the notion that most great and enduring works of art are inspired by the wicked side of artists.

A typical Twitter-style reviewer, with his antenna extended for the slightest hint of sexism or misogyny, forgets often that when the tension between the sexes is not an integral part of an artist’s attempt to explore the man-woman dynamic, when this tension is not celebrated but scoffed at easily, the result is an aesthetically weak piece of work whose only claim to fame is the solution it offers to some intractable social problem.

Clara is very much inspired by Padmarajan’s wicked side.

Yes, she is a product of the bitterness he felt for women, and his disappointments in them; she is, however, a celebration of this tension.

As played by the googly-eyed Sumalatha, she may even be a descendant of the mysterious lady in Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci in whose absence the knight grows haggard.

Padmarajan has thought about Clara, has dreamt her up, and very consciously, made her better than women as he found them to be in life.

She is an ambitious creation, and you don’t knock an artist for his ambition.

She may or may not have been based on a real person, but the death-seeking Clara is a reversal of the succor-giving, nourishing female stereotype, and, as is the case usually, when you reverse a stereotype, it leads you to reality, to a fullness of personality.

This is all good, but watching the film again, recently, it hit me that Padmarajan gives us an even more interesting case of the reversal of stereotype, in Radha — the film’s true leading lady.

Radha is the one Jayakrishnan loves (loves in less supernatural terms than Clara) and the one who when she publicly rebuffs him, it elicits from him a reaction, in equal parts violent and exquisite: He turns to her batch of curious college girls and boys and announces, ‘Radha has just had an episode of hemorrhoids and is hence, a little pissy.’

The put-down, delivered in Thrissur slang, is brutal, and yet, the spontaneity of its poetry gets to you.

‘Don’t you worry sweetie,’ says Jayakrishnan, before bolting out, ‘It will hurt for some time, but you will be alright’ — tracing in the process, a straight line, from her burning rectum to his injured heart.

How Padmarajan brings Radha (Parvathy plays her with a marvelously stiff neck) to life, is one more example of the artist’s war against cliché.

There she sits, gloating in her victory over Jayakrishnan — whom she thinks of as loutish and boorish and nothing more — and in walks her brother, who proceeds to open a window into the man she has spurned.

‘You should be careful,’ says the brother, while hanging his shirt over a wooden clothesline, ‘Jayakrishnan isn’t someone given to expressing his desire for every girl who crosses his path. Besides, he has a small underworld in this town, a gang of people ready to do anything for him.’

Though the brother intends for his words to be a warning, they produce the exact opposite effect: They deconstruct Jayakrishnan’s personality in Radha’s mind.

She starts to dig the bad boy; he becomes her lout.

It’s a wonderfully twisted sequence of events, twisted enough to send present-day feminists, with their strict markers for ‘how an independent-minded woman should think,’ into a tizzy.

But these sequences, nevertheless, confer great autonomy upon Radha.

From that point on, it becomes clear to us that she’s not one to follow the conventions of feeling, or observe the rules of practicality.

There’s a primitive force about the affection Radha feels for Jayakrishnan, that rivals his attraction for the merciless, otherworldly Clara, and with such a Radha waiting for him at home, can Jayakrishnan go gallivanting the mysterious realm and be totally at peace?

I think I get it now.

The two women characters in Thoovanathumbikal, it was they who took on a life of their own, a life beyond their creator’s wildest anticipation, and who, through their sense of absolute freedom and self-governance, set up, inside the world of the movie, a parallel power centre of sorts.

This is what, I assume, must have happened.

Around the time of Radha descending upon Jayakrishnan’s barnyard twirling her pink-and-blue parasol, and Clara appearing in his rain-soaked imagination, something breaks apart in Padmarajan, and, by osmosis, in his leading man who begins to resent the story he has been placed into.

Padmarajan’s other celebrated romance, Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal (NPMT), does not go for such double-tracking.

That film, Padmarajan had well within his grasp at all times, it was a film where he passively followed the plot, a plot motored by the friction between a whimpering heroine and her evil stepfather (the stock villain!), and that film, at least in the opinion of this columnist, is too digestible, and too full of the liberal pieties of its age.

Thoovanathumbikal, on the other hand, Padmarajan’s white elephant, busts out all over, and when compared to simple Solomon of NPMT (the film’s lead; an amiable fellow who uses Bible verses as a come-on), Jayakrishnan is a figure of far too many contradictions and dichotomies to be viewed as a straight hero.

A mixed being from the very start, Jayakrishnan is shown as capable of intense warmth and great cruelty, given to silences as well as theatricality, and in the sudden onrush of feelings that the two women urge forth, he begins to demand something extra from Padmarajan — something cosmological perhaps, a psychodrama maybe. And it is because Padmarajan does valiantly attempt to provide for Jayakrishnan’s demands that I regard with suspicion anyone who refers to Thoovanathumbikal as a love story.

It is not, I think, a mere love story (much less ‘a love triangle’).

It is, in fact, of no genre whatsoever.

Though, when pressed for a description, I often say that the film is about a period in the life of its charismatic protagonist, someone who happens to contain within him absolute opposites and contraries.

That Padmarajan picked the 26-year-old Mohanlal to portray the kaleidoscopic range of Jayakrishnan’s impulses tells you something about the high esteem in which the director held the actor.

There are moments in the film where you might even be compelled to think that the character was patterned after Mohanlal — that he and Padmarajan had written Jayakrishnan together.

Every time I find myself thinking about, or discussing, the steady retreat of ambition that has come to define Mohanlal’s career, the subject of Thoovanathumbikal invariably comes up.

His transformation into a Mass Man, as interchangeable as any commodity; his current inclination for posing as a flag-waving patriot; those videos of him serenading fourth-rate Bollywood actors over Karaoke sessions — every time I see Mohanlal performing an act of professional or social Seppuku, what I find most clearly receding from my consciousness is the complexity, the poetic isolation, and the singularity of Jayakrishnan’s mind.

Jayakrishnan and Thoovanathumbikal recede from my consciousness, also, when I hear the film being described as, among other things, ‘the romanticisation of the Malayali libido’ or described, as actor Anoop Menon recently did, as ‘a film about a man who is in love with two women at the same time and gets away with it.’ (Menon’s attempt feels like ‘Thoovanathumbikal, as Shobhaa De might describe it’).

Though the film continues to be worshiped by one section of the Malayali population for the unconscious bias it harbors towards its totemic male figure and his excesses, and reviled by another section for that very reason, a closer look reveals that both sections of the audience may have got it wrong.

I don’t think Padmarajan had designed Thoovanathumbikal to be seen as important — as the dandelion-esque title suggests. It was probably meant to be a light, breezy venture of numerous throwaway pleasures.

But as the film reaches its climax and the writer-director leads his three stubborn characters to a place of temporary equanimity, an unexpected theme bubbles up.

As Jayakrishnan stands on platform number one of the Ottapalam railway station, among a crowd of regular faces, at a spot from where even those posters of Paragon Slippers seem to outloom him, waving his trembling hand at a departing train, his self-projections have been turned inside out, and at least some of his self-deceptions have been laid bare.

A forlorn-looking Radha watches him from a distance, and a smiling Clara returns his wave.

What the two women are reacting to, each in their separate ways, is the same thing: The assailability and the vulnerability of a supposedly robust man.

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