Dhoomam Movie Review: An Attempt To Make A Sexy PSA, Goes Up In Smoke

Even if you kind of have to give Pawan Kumar credit for the coolness he’s being able to bring to a topic we’ve been hearing about for our entire lives, it never coalesces to create a cool movie
Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam
Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam

Director: Pawan Kumar

Writer: Pawan Kumar

Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Aparna Balamurali, Roshan Mathew, Vineeth Radhakrishnan, Anu Mohan and Achyuth Kumar

If you’ve seen Pawan Kumar’s U-Turn (2016), you may have felt a strange incompleteness in the way it ends. It’s a solid super natural thriller with great ideas, but I clearly remember thinking about how all that cleverness had eventually gone into spelling out a message as rudimentary as “do not break traffic rules”. The feeling is similar when you step out of Dhoomam, an attempt at making an uber-cool anti-smoking PSA. In hindsight, you wonder if the same smartness would have worked had it been used to present a hipper message. A movie highlighting social media addiction, for instance, sounds a lot newer than one about smoking doesn’t it?

It’s this newness that we miss when we’re listening to detailed explanations about the harmful effects of smoking. Even when the film spends an hour getting us to understand the moral ambiguity of people who work in the tobacco industry, it feels like things we already know. Even so, you kind of have to give Pawan Kumar credit for the coolness he’s being able to bring to a topic we’ve been hearing about for our entire lives.  

A still from Dhoomam
A still from Dhoomam

The coolest of these is how the film addresses the topic of “passive” smoking at the most fundamental level. Structured like a thriller, with a ticking time-bomb right at the core, it’s fascinating to think that this bomb isn’t attached to the protagonist Avi (Fahadh Faasil). It’s a cool way to underline the point about how smoking is more harmful to others than the smoker when you place it in such a context. Instead of saving himself, the tasks Avi has to complete is to save the life of a person he’s most likely to cause harm to “passively”. 

This brand of coolness extends to some of the details that you see all through the film. Important board meetings at this tobacco company, where the fate of the cigarette business get discussed, take place around a table shaped like a coffin. Much of the film is also set inside an SUV with its number plate reading 555, like the cigarette brand. Even the names of the products—‘Likes’ and ‘Share’—underline the nature of addiction, especially in teenagers, with dopamine becoming a synonym for nicotine.

Yet all of this never coalesce to create a cool movie. One of the reasons for this is the dual-narrative structure. The thriller bits work on the logic that Avi has certain tasks to compete to keep his partner alive. But instead of a straightforward method to tell us how he got to this point, we get a series of flashbacks that detail Avi’s growth in the tobacco business and the overall murkiness that controls it. While some of these flashbacks work, like a marketing meeting in which Avi changes the nature of advertising, others distract you from the time-sensitive tasks that needs to be finished. 

Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam
Fahadh Faasil in Dhoomam

This deflates the tension, even when the film’s building up to an event. The way some of these scenes play out, with a set of underwhelming character actors, then further dilute the larger scheme of things. Entire sub-plots, like the one about a politician getting involved in the tobacco business, work only to provide one more bit of shady information about a shady industry. In other places, we get several twists and turns that serve just that point in the screenplay, without adding any extra detail to the bigger picture. 

It is also a film that requires patience. We struggle to stay with the protagonist and this is not just because of his moral ambiguity. He is also an unreliable narrator with versions of his truth changing every half hour or so. At first, we remain invested and we also understand the logic behind these “u-turns”. Yet after a point, when we’re already unsure of his moral compass, we start to not care about what he’s saying because it might or might not matter. 

Yet nothing disappoints like the film’s ending. Not only does it end predictably but it also gets to that finishing line in the most cliched way. With the cleverness running out and with a set of subpar performances, Dhoomam quickly becomes suffocating to sit through. It’s a film Pawan says he wrote almost 15 years ago. It also feels like a film that should have been made then.  

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