Of all the classics Keralites have grown accustomed to watching on TV without a sense of repetition, Sreenivasan’s directorial debut Vadakkunokkiyanthram is an obvious favourite. Almost the entirety of the film – its dialogues, characters, and quirky moments – are familiar to Malayalam audiences and have had a fair share of influence in the state’s pop culture. Thalathil Dinesan and his wife Shobha have become such familiar characters in Malayalam cinema appreciation, that even now Vadakkunokkiyanthram often becomes a layman’s reference while talking about marital relations dominated by an Othello complex.
For starters, Vadakkunokkiyanthram, which hit theatres in 1989, is a satire-cum-psychological drama that portrayed the turbulent marriage of Dinesan (Sreenivasan) and Shobha (Parvathy), and Dinesan’s slightly destructive, pathological jealousy towards his wife, stemming from his insecurities regarding his short physique and dark complexion. To overcome this inferiority complex and to impress his newlywed, Dinesan resorts to a few tried-and-tested tactics, and even a few never-heard-before ones. He tries to crack a joke to Shobha, to which only he himself ends up laughing. He also starts drinking, despite being a teetotaller, under the false pretense that it is a sign of machismo. His insecurity is stretched to drastic and even paranoid proportions when he doubts his wife, who is depicted here as an ideal spouse, of infidelity. Dinesan attempts to confirm his suspicions by staying in a room at a lodge opposite to his house, so he could clearly see the happenings that would apparently unfold. Even though a man visits Shobha in a shady manner, cleverly orchestrated thanks to Sreenivasan’s impeccable direction, it turns out to be his father-in-law, but the realization dawns on him a bit too late. He smacks him with a stick, thinking him his wife’s paramour. While all this is filmed and viewed in a mostly comical light, we begin to get early signs of Dinesan’s mania in these scenes. He later begins to cast doubts on Shobha’s relation with a well-wisher of hers, a military officer, to the extent that he approaches the latter in the guise of a sensationalist writer and tries to uncover the apparent truth behind the supposedly illegitimate affair. Soon, things start to play on their own in Dinesan’s mind, leading him to the throes of paranoia.
Due to frequent viewing on satellite TV, Vadakkunokkiyanthram has come to be regarded by many as one of those 90s-era Malayalam classic comedies, characterised by the Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan films, which honestly still manage to entertain the movie-watching populace. However, beyond this, Vadakkunokkiyanthram is a stunningly effective picture with layered realities written into it wonderfully by Sreenivasan, the excellent writer that he is. He brought the preconceived notions of Malayalam manhood into his narrative, tore them apart, and gave them a run for their money. The extent to which Dinesan’s attempts to clear his suspicions stretch and how the director lambasts them, using slick writing, reminded the audience of how toxically Mollywood had cast the male lead’s efforts in a heroic light. Here, the male lead isn’t the gallant husband who protects the honour of his woman, nor is he the charming boy-next-door who successfully woos the heroine. Sreenivasan crafts the ‘perfect’ version of an imperfect protagonist in Vadakkunokkiyanthram: a husband who lets his insecurities dominate his marital relationship. Despite Shobha’s attempts to remain dedicated to the relationship, Dinesan continues to be the doubting Thomas. Interestingly enough, the phrase ‘doubting Thomas’ is seldom used in the Malayalam lexicon: instead, ‘Thalathil Dinesan’ is popularly used to refer to a person who often has unfounded suspicions and remains skeptical of the trustworthiness of the people around them.
Sreenivasan’s second directorial outing, Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala, was also a film that followed a similar template of an imperfect husband, this time whose irresponsibility becomes the reason for marital and familial discord. There’s a reason that Sreenivasan still remains one of the few memorable screenplay writers of light-hearted films in Mollywood’s illustrious history. It’s because they weren’t mere comical no-brainers; they also contained a commentary on the social, political, and familial scenarios Malayalis lived in at the time. Sreenivasan’s acclaimed filmography as scriptwriter is a testament to his ability to reflect social realities in his narratives: Sandesham (a satire on Kerala’s heated political rivalries), Udayananu Tharam (a satire on the Malayalam film industry and “stardom”), Nadodikkattu (a comedy that deftly discussed themes of unemployment and poverty) and many others. Among these, Vadakkunokkiyanthram is truly deserving of the label ‘classic’ and warrants a watch by those cinephiles who look for quirky and interesting narratives that emerged outside Bollywood.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.