The Painful Inevitability Of Repetition: Thaniyavarthanam, My Favourite Malayalam Film

As we watch helplessly, we are taken through the devastating heights to which situations escalate when superstition arrives in the midst of an otherwise ordinary life
The Painful Inevitability Of Repetition: Thaniyavarthanam, My Favourite Malayalam Film

The year 1987 marked the debut of A.K. Lohithadas as a scriptwriter, after a brief stint of writing short stories that didn't take off as expected. His experience as a playwright garnered him a lot of praise and acclaim along with an introduction to the industry by none other than the thespian Thilakan himself. Their kinship is one for the ages and undoubtedly one of the best examples of good associations leading to better cinema, especially in a period when the Malayalam film industry enjoyed a stupendous elevation in the quality of its content, thanks to the much-revered friendships of technicians like Padmarajan, Barathan, K.G George, I.V Sasi, Sibi Malayil, Priyadarshan, etc., who are still touted to be the harbingers of the new school of thought in Malayalam cinema.

Lohithadas was introduced to Sibi Malayil by Thilakan and the rest is history. Their rapport and camaraderie led to a slew of memorable films that are relevant even today and can undoubtedly be considered classics, the first of which was Thaniyavarthanam (1987).

Thaniyavarthanam can still claim to be one of the most hard-hitting Malayalam films of all time and will be on every list of classic films that deserve to be watched for the subject that it handled and most importantly the people behind and in front of the camera who went on to make an indelible mark in the industry. The impact of this film on their respective careers is not small by any means.

The film brings to light the mind-numbing chaos that descends on a family as an effect of people's unflinching belief in superstition and their lack of empathy. It was lauded for its aesthetic handling of a very sensitive topic, which gave way for many films that dared to question the dogma dictated by religious provocations and the exploitation of people's fears and spirituality.

Thaniyavarthanam opens at a familiar but eerie setting of an offering to the gods, which was and still is a staple sight in rural Kerala. The prologue dutifully captures the lives of the men and women who live with constant bouts of remorse and a sense of foreboding that intermittently finds its way into their otherwise ordinary lives, due to an unwelcome tradition that is familiar not just to them, but to the entire village. The writer doesn't shy away from revealing the core conflict in the story as he sets forth with the proceedings and portrays these individuals, clad in traditional attire, in the midst of rituals, offering their prayers to mortals considered to be the gateway to the gods. The so-called deity proxies bask in their premonitions and perform carefully choreographed movements to the accompaniment of the rumblings of rustic percussion and wind instruments. The family funds the execution of this ritual annually, to extinguish the perilous effects of a curse that had been branded on them as a result of an ancestral wrong-doing that displeased the gods.

The curse? One male from every generation will go insane and this cycle will repeat until the gods bestow them with forgiveness.

The aforementioned setting was one such desperate attempt at redemption. The man in the current generation, who is gripped by the curse is the maternal uncle (Babu Namboothiri) of Balagopalan (Mammootty). Balagopalan, who is a father of two and a teacher, is the second in command of the house that is run by the victim's older brother (Thilakan), who was fortunate enough to be spared by the curse. The family resides in an ancestral property that has already been parted from the respective inheritors (Thilakan and Kaviyoor Ponamma, Balan's mother). Nonetheless, they continue to live in close proximity for the ease of hosting the ceremonies that will one day bring them their freedom.

The economic impact of such a grand gesture, on a struggling middle-class family that primarily relies on the yields from their shrinking land, can be guessed quite accurately. They are well aware that it is beyond their means to continue these rituals but seem to have no other option than to keep it going, for the last thing they want is to anger the gods. The "mad-man" is stowed away in a room upstairs, chained to the wall by his ankles. The family is reminded of the dead-weight around their necks when he lucidly hums a raaga, bringing with it memories of a bygone era where they were relatively happier. They muse among themselves about how "ammaama" (uncle) has been showing signs of mellowness lately.

The curse is yet to shower its ill-will on the current generation, but its impact on their lives is more than evident, with the children, who are reflections of their predecessors. Much like the previous generation, they are two brothers and a sister, as well. They hold their ties to the family through the widowed mother, who laments the plight of the house and what has become of her beloved brother. "Velyammaama" (elder uncle) seems to call all the shots in the family, especially when it comes to matters pertaining to the curse and the family's acquittal from its clutches. He doesn't, however, tower over the household like a typical patriarch would, and chooses not to exercise that overbearing presence on them. But he has the last word on all things related to the family and Balagopalan merely tags along like a nephew who holds his uncle in great regard. His brother Gopinathan (Mukesh) is the stark opposite. He detests the fact that they reinforce the mystifying falsehood that is forced upon them simply because of a lack of determination on their part to walk the path of reason and scientific evidence. He is a typical hot-head who rebels against the system and the injustice that is meted out to people who can't think for themselves.

The youngest of the three is Sumitra (Asha Jayaram), who uses her cheerful attitude as a façade that helps her escape the sorry situation that she was born into. Although the curse doesn't affect women, it is she who bears the brunt of it the most in the current generation, because no man in his right mind would want to marry a woman from a foredoomed family. She is vocal about the fact that she is tired of presenting herself to the numerous suitors who withdraw their alliance once they come to know about the family's history.

Amidst all this apparent dysfunctionality, the family still gets by in its daily activities quite seamlessly. Routine inevitably kicks in and they have their own lives to tend to, but the curse lurks in the back of their minds like a wound that slowly begins to heal before the year goes by and they have to prepare for the ritual again, tugging at the scab and prying it open.

Balagopalan is a talented artist who is also a drawing teacher in the local school. He is a respected individual who has made a name for himself. His wife Indu (Sarika) is a loving mother who cares for the family as if it were her own. Their sphere of love extends beyond them and their two kids, as they more than willingly accommodate the rest of the family into their lives despite having the obvious means and opportunities to distance themselves from all the unwanted struggles that the curse has brought with it. He respects the elders of the family and doesn't question their authority, a virtue that he knows his brother is yet to understand fully. He is a kind-hearted man who adulated his uncle and saw his untimely descent into madness, and still nurses the pain it brought to his childhood. He looks after everyone in his family, with an unwavering sense of responsibility. At home, he spends time painting his thoughts on canvas, in the hall adjacent to where his uncle is locked, and talks to him about everyday things in an attempt to help him sail through a meaningless existence.

Balan, Indu, Sumitra, and Gopi are all victims of this refusal to adhere to the evidence-driven reasoning culture that is slowly gaining traction at the turn of the decade. The youngsters here are left having to choose between themselves and the apparent "greater good" where the slightest hint of dissent will be misconstrued as a direct insult to the gods, thereby prolonging the hapless situation they seem to be stuck in. However, Gopi begs to differ and he thinks the rituals are meaningless. He scours the town for a job opportunity that will get him out of the hell he is stuck in. He swears to disown everything, the first shot he gets at leaving. He worries about his sister not being able to live the life that she deserves. Every day is a fight against the baseless beliefs that are forced upon him, and he loathes the lack of forwarding thinking that plagues his family. He appeals to them, especially his brother whom he respects greatly, to stop giving in to the demands of a phenomenon that is heavily exaggerated due to the control it has over the lives of people and their willingness to be brainwashed by superstitions. He terms it an exercise in futility and refuses to partake in the precautionary customs.

One evening, as Balan goes about his daily activities of stimulating his mind with his art, ammaama gestures him over to his room and requests him with the innocence of a child to untie his chained leg. Balan obliges at once and frees his uncle. One would expect the man to escape, but all he does is walk meekly with his nephew, into the hall and sit down with a solemn look on his face as Balan hands him his edakka (a percussion instrument seen mostly in Kerala that looks like a damru), which he plays to his heart's content.

The following morning, as the house wakes to another day of chores and familial duties, Balan goes to the small pond in the periphery of the ancestral house, to take a bath before leaving for school. As he enters the pond, he notices the edakka floating near the stairwell at the entrance of the pond and not far from it, the lifeless body of ammaama.

The family, albeit grief-stricken, is relieved that he didn't have to continue to struggle the way he did, although the circumstances surrounding his death necessitate a post-mortem. Velyammaama and Balan do everything necessary for the funeral. The family heaves a sigh of relief as the death, mourning aside, meant that the curse would culminate its reign over the family, as they had done everything in their capacity to repent the actions of their forefathers.

Of course, that will never be the case. The astrologer returns and predicts that the gods have still not forgiven them. This startles them because this means that either Balan or Gopi will soon descend into the bottomless pit of insanity. The movie, although well into its run-time, really starts here, and boy, does it astonish with the events that follow! As we watch helplessly, we are taken through the devastating heights to which situations escalate when superstition arrives in the midst of an otherwise ordinary life. It also points a finger at the fear-mongering and apathy in Kerala, while also being a painfully realistic account of something that is blown way out of proportion.

The entire cast puts forth terrific performances, with the writer ensuring that they all get their individual space and presence in a story that disturbs, provokes thought, and a much-needed discussion about practices that exist to this day. The director deftly handles his duty of translating this onto the screen by employing the aesthetic framing that Saloo George brings with him from the cinematography department and delegating the onus of transporting the audience into the pandemonium that increases with every passing scene, in the hands of Johnson, who seems to have done just that with a background score that haunts.

It comes as no surprise that the film garnered widespread critical acclaim while also earning Mammootty a Kerala Film Critics Award for best actor and a Kerala State Film Award for best supporting actor for Thilakan. It was also a commercial success, which can still be termed a rarity for films that deal with sensitive topics such as these. A real sense of this euphoria can only be experienced when you watch it, because it will pierce one's conscience as it slowly makes its way into the mind.

This film deserves to be watched for the feeling it leaves you with, soon after it has ended. It's fascinating to be briefly transported to an era of chaos and to witness the lives of ordinary individuals being distorted beyond repair, to be awestruck by the natural performances of actors who embody their roles so perfectly that all you see are Balagopalan, Gopinathan, Sumitra, Indu, Amma, Velyammaama and their family, whom you join in pleading to the gods and the society to be left alone.

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