A vulture waits in anticipation as a herd of goats makes its way through a quarry. The bird seems to know a predator is around, and that it will soon get its meal. It doesn’t take long for that wish to be fulfilled. A hirsute Mohanlal, dressed in boxers and a sleeveless vest (all red), grabs hold of a black goat and kills it to drink the blood from its heart. Meet ‘Aadu’ Thoma, the town’s most notorious rowdy, both loved and hated, pitied and feared.
This is the opening scene of Spadikam (1995), an action film that revolves around a dysfunctional family. Such is the influence of Spadikam on the Malayali psyche that a re-release 28 years later is seeing housefull shows all over Kerala. The film has grossed over Rs 3 crore in four days, which is nearly half of what it made when it was first released in the Nineties.
There have been many “mass” action films featuring Mohanlal since Spadikam, but the Bhadran directorial is special to audiences. It isn’t just about their superstar’s mundu and Ray-bans, beloved as these accessories are. This is a story that has resonated across decades because at its heart, it is about hopes and dreams cruelly dashed by toxic parenting. The term wasn’t invented back then but the audience recognised it for what it is.
If Thoma’s prefix is ‘aadu’, meaning ‘goat’, he calls his father ‘kaduva’, which means ‘tiger’. Can a goat and a tiger hope to live together in peace? Chacko (Thilakan) is a renowned mathematician who’s won the President’s award for Best Teacher. He’s determined to turn his son, Thomas (Mohanlal), into a mathematical prodigy, but the boy has other interests. The town believes that Chacko maashu (teacher) can teach even a donkey to do maths, but his own son fumbles when asked to repeat the algebraic formulae. An incensed Chacko canes his son repeatedly, convinced that inflicting violence is the best method to get the boy to understand maths.
Saraswathy Nagarajan, senior journalist and Deputy Editor of The Hindu, said that for a generation that had grown up with corporal punishment at school and home, Spadikam was a film that articulated their pain. “The emphasis on maths in academics has only grown with time. Other subjects like social studies or languages are not given as much importance. It was normal for tutors to cane children for making mistakes, and even now, parents don’t seem to think this is wrong. ‘Aadu’ Thoma and his rebelliousness resonated with all of us,” she said.
Since Thoma’s father is also the principal of his school, the boy has no escape. After a particularly brutal incident, Thoma runs away from home and returns 14 years later as a thug. He drives a lorry for a living and his sole purpose in life is to thumb his nose at his father. He gets into fights, spends all his time at a local club playing cards, sleeps around with a sex worker named Laila (Silk Smitha), and shows scant respect to Chacko when their paths cross.
Vivek Ranjith, who did the subtitles for the re-release, said he was around nine years old when the film first came out. “My parents didn’t take me to watch it in theatres, probably because Silk Smitha was on the posters! But I watched a pirated video cassette of it and of course, I’ve watched it several times since on TV,” he said. Ranith was enthusiastic but also anxious about translating Spadikam’s dialogues. “You have to keep in mind that these are iconic dialogues and people know them so well. You have to get it absolutely right and with the flavour of the original. Like the ‘Theepetti illya thee irikettada! (Don’t have a matchbox, take fire instead)’ line. Even the ‘Ezhimala Poonchola’ song was difficult to do because the lines have to sound suggestive but not vulgar,” he said.
Nagarajan noted that lines from the film — like Chacko saying “Bhoogolathinte oro spandanamum kanakkilaanu (Every vibration in the universe lies in mathematics)” and “Without mathematics, bhoomi oru vatta poojyamana (the earth is a round zero)” – became part of the everyday vocabulary of Malayalis. “We used to repeat such lines to each other and laugh. Mohanlal was at his peak in Spadikam. The humiliation he undergoes in the film was something we had all experienced. So, it felt good to see him give it back – the way he chains a policeman to the jeep or cuts off his father’s shirt sleeves,” she said.
Actor George, who later came to be known as ‘Spadikam’ George, plays Kuttikadan, a violent police officer who wants to destroy ‘Aadu’ Thoma. Of course the real villain in Thoma’s life is his father who refuses to accept him for who he is. In fact, the first fight scene, which the film begins with, is tied to Thoma’s rage towards his own father – Thoma is seen intervening on behalf of a young Muslim woman whose father doesn’t approve of her romance, and Thoma feels compelled to support the couple against the patriarch.
Despite all his attempts to get back at his father, ultimately, it’s obvious that what Thoma craves is his father’s approval. In an early scene, Thoma sees a girl crying on the road. He asks her what happened and she says that her father hit her. The hypermasculine alpha male we had seen on the screen suddenly dissolves, and Thoma buys the child an ice cream to cheer her up. In another scene, Thoma and Chacko meet at the church in a reconciliation meeting arranged by a priest. However, Chacko once again rejects Thoma, and the latter leaves disappointed. Behind his stylish Ray-bans, a single tear unironically slides down his face.
“It’s the emotional core of the film that makes it work. Kireedam (1989), Spadikam and Narasimham (2000) are all father-son stories with Mohanlal and Thilakan playing the roles. It’s the same conflict, but it never gets old. It’s also about education and nourishing the talent of young people – again a theme that is still relevant,” said Ranjith.
In Spadikam, a young Thoma is keenly interested in inventing machines. Among his experiments is a ‘wonder bell’, an automated school bell. He devises it after Chacko makes him kneel down on a bed of salt and asks him to ring the bell as punishment. While the entire school is stunned by Thoma’s invention, Chacko throws it to the ground and abuses his son. Everybody watching knows that Chacko is wrong, but nobody does enough to stop him. They stand by and let Chacko trample Thoma’s dreams.
It is this sense of shared guilt that leads to many in the town to harbour a soft corner for Thoma. His childhood friend Thulasi (Urvashi), her father and teacher Ravunni (Nedumudi Venu), constable Pachu Pillai (NF Varghese), his uncle Vakkachan (Rajan P Dev), his mother Mary (KPAC Lalitha) and his sister Jancy (Chippy) all lean towards Thoma despite his thuggish behaviour and penchant for violence as an adult. Thoma’s toxic masculinity may appear to be glorified in the film — he slaps Thulasi when he meets her for the first time as an adult, almost ruins his sister’s wedding by getting involved with the police, asks his mother for her bangles to pay his debt, and seems to use Laila as a trophy to annoy his father – but the script also reminds us that it is a terrible consequence of his troubled childhood. Fans may have interpreted Thoma’s behaviour as aspirational, but the original narrative is more nuanced in its approach.
Film critic Anna M.M .Vetticad acknowledged that Spadikam deviated from some norms but also kicked off certain problematic trends in Malayalam cinema. “Spadikam had a lot going for it when it was released – high energy, a substantial storyline, a script that rightly rebelled against the social norm in India requiring children to respect and love their parents irrespective of how the parents treat them, memorable music, a charismatic cast and Mohanlal’s youthful dynamism,” she said. However, Vetticad added that these were not the only factors that contributed to its cult status. “Spadikam was among the films that kicked off a decades-long trend in Malayalam commercial cinema of glorifying masculine aggression, portraying male violence as routine and a mark of coolth. The horrifyingly normalised depiction of Spadikam’s hero repeatedly assaulting the heroine remains a primary example from this terrible trend,” she said.
Despite being an alpha hero-centric narrative, Nagarajan pointed out that other characters too have a substantial role in driving the story forward. Even the pet mynah at home has a significant presence – it taunts Chacko by calling him ‘kaduva’ and later, when Chacko finds himself to be a lonely man and goes to it, the bird rejects him. His isolation is complete.
“The film is very powerfully crafted. There are many other films with slow motion shots of Mohanlal’s mundu and legs, but Spadikam isn’t one mindless fight after another. It’s a film that makes you think,” said Nagarajan. “When Chacko changes the name of Thoma’s lorry from ‘cheguthan’ (devil) to ‘spadikam’ (crystal), it connects the dots in Thoma’s journey. The realisation comes to the father at last, but it’s too late.”
The re-released theatrical version of Spadikam pays tribute to 14 members of its cast and crew who have since passed away. That’s how many years it has been since the film came out. Yet it remains an evergreen favourite with the audience, a tragedy that articulates the grief that many in the audience have experienced in their childhood and formative years. As Nagarajan puts it, “As long as there are parents who insist on forcing their dreams on their children, Spadikam will continue to be relevant.”