“Romanticisation Of Malayali Libido”: Still Watching Mohanlal’s Thoovanathumbikal

Like elephants and the kadal (insert Anna Ben meme here), Thoovanathumbikal is a phenomenon Malayalis will never tire of seeing. The Padmarajan film turns 33 today, but generations before and after still do not seem to have gotten enough of it. The lockdown has given some fans fresh reasons to watch and rewatch the film again (It’s on Disney+Hotstar), for the 100th time or more. But why? Is it merely the comfort of nostalgia or is there something deeper at play? Is this obsession with the film limited to the Malayali man alone? 

Some of this love can be seen spilling onto the works of writer-actor Anoop Menon who has chosen to pay Beautiful tributes to the film and its characters. On a phone call interrupted appropriately by rainfall, two fanboys piece together their relationship with Jayakrishnan, Radha, and, of course, Clara.  

Do you remember the first time you watched Thoovanathumbikal

Of course, I do. It wasn’t in the theatre. It was on VHS and it was around the time in the 80s when I was studying in Christ Nagar School in Trivandrum. Even then, I remember thinking that it was unlike anything we had seen until then. 

How have your feelings for the film changed in all these years?

Like with any piece of great art, your relationship with it keeps changing or evolving with time. Songs and scenes from it keep playing now and then, and I find myself watching the film again, even if not in its entirety. But there’s a fresh takeaway or a new observation even today, even after having watched it so, so many times. 

Why do you think this is so? 

It’s one of those films that is incredibly re-watchable. It is feel-good too and everything contributes to that experience, right from the photography and the use of lights. We see a lot of pastel shades through the film, even in the costumes. Its making was such that it didn’t use a lot of distracting camera movements. Of course, Johnson sir’s hypnotic background score and Lalettan’s immense likebality contributes a lot too. It’s a “holistic” film in the sense that every little thing contributed to reasons we liked it so much. Even a small character like Jayakrishnan’s sister leaves a mark.  

But that’s the making. What about the writing?

It is a film about a man who is in love with two women at the same time and gets away with it. Can you imagine that today? It was a romanticisation of Malayali libido. One woman — Clara (Sumalatha) stood for the lustful woman of our fantasies. From her flowing hair to her pottu, it all brought together a particular vision for the character.

The other woman, of course, was Radha (Parvathy), the one you end up marrying, almost like the stereotypical heroine of the time. Just take a look at a character like Clara. It’s a film that’s about two lovers meeting at a brothel. But it doesn’t emerge from a Kamathipura-like space. 

Even Clara is so different from the way sex workers have been shown until then; there’s no judgement. Jayakrishnan’s relationship with Clara operates more in the Pretty Woman zone even though Thoovanathumbikal came first. That was Padmarajan. It’s the duality of Jayakrishnan’s personality that gets you, even today.   

How so? 

There is an anarchy to his love, don’t you think? Even now, there’s a dichotomy in most men about lust and love. You can make the same film even today, and it will be just as relevant. Just imagine Jayakrishnan in a corporate setting, dressed in Louis Vuitton shoes or something travelling to a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru, and it will still work. I feel every man fantasises about a double life. It’s like a battle between two personalities or two men, one of which they have to always hide. The man you want to be versus the man who end up becoming. It was really ahead of its time. 

Why do you think it flopped, compared to say, a film like Namukku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal, which released around the same time?

This was before cable television, so the theatre was a family space. Families could not accept a mainstream film where one of the hero’s close friends is a pimp! But Namukku Parkan… was accepted immediately. Even though Namukku Parkan dealt with violent themes, it was never repulsive. You didn’t want to look away, which was another quality of Padmarajan. So when Thilakan’s character says, “Ini nee kondoyikko” (you may take her now) after he sexually assaults his step-daughter, the hero’s response to it is from a progressive viewpoint. It’s not a tragedy, like say a Paruthiveeran. Which means that even violence in his films don’t take away from the watchability.

You mentioned the film still offers fresh insights each time you rewatch it. Can you remember one such from a later viewing? 

Little things, like the way Radha behaves when she sees Jayakrishnan for the first time. Or that train sequence during the climax. The train with Clara onboard leaves the station the moment Radha walks in. The train becomes a metaphor for the past leaving Jayakrishnan to make way for the future. These are touches the film keeps on giving.

With reference to Mohanlal’s stardom, there have been several interpretations as to how a fan sees himself in the characters played by Ashokan in Thoovanathumbikal and Vineeth in Namukku Parkan…How do you see these characters? 

These characters are tools used to laud the achievements of the protagonist, without them being explicitly stated in the form of dialogues. Through them, we too get into a kind of hero worship, as we learn more about their personalities. 

Kind of like a comic sidekick?    

Not really. A comic sidekick cannot really elevate the hero’s persona like these two characters. Such a person needs to be naïve and wide-eyed and they come of age as a result of the hero’s arc. It’s a fascinating tool. 

Why did you choose to include scenes from Thoovanathumbikal into Beautiful and the Thangal character to Trivandrum Lodge?

I don’t know if it’s correct to say this, but I wrote the entire script of Beautiful on location. While I was sitting on the set one day to write, it started to rain. It is the rain that connected Meghna’s character in Beautiful to Clara, the rain and Johnson sir’s background score. And later, when we were working on Trivandrum Lodge, it was VK Prakash who wanted to continue that to bring back Thangal, as a character, through our film. These were both afterthoughts, but they are our tributes to the great film. 

Is there a favourite scene?  

Oh so many. Like so many others, each dialogue comes back to mind when you think about the film. My favourite is the seaside scene where Jayakrishnan asks, “Clarane Njan Marry cheyatte?”, when she asks him “mone thadi contractore, nee aara?”  

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