Directors: Saheed Arafath, Prinish Prabhakaran (co-director)
Writer: Syam Pushkaran
Cast: Biju Menon, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Aparna Balamurali
Syam Pushkaran’s new film (as a writer) is about a man putting up a facade, and the lengths to which he will go, to maintain the same. It’s a lowkey character study and more prominently an investigative crime drama. To sell the bit about the facade, Syam utilizes a personality who comes with a strong amount of goodwill and warmth attached to his presence. Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Kannan is soft-spoken, pious and visibly confident. But humans aren’t as one-dimensional, and there’s always much to discover beneath a person’s actions. While Mukundan Unni Associates uses the actor’s sincere presence as an ironic contrast to perpetually being inside the head of a messed-up character, Thankam wants to unravel the depths of Kannan gradually, through those who know him. It takes him on a seemingly physical journey before it reveals to us that it was a psychologically dark, almost-spiritual journey for him all along.
The film begins in a rather crude manner with a montage song, set to a devotional track presumably about Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth. It’s a peculiar choice, first of many, to provide no context and begin with a sequence that doesn’t quite have a story in itself. The part-devotional, part-brooding song is surely appropriate for the film and its theme, but the timing and necessity of it aren’t as convincing. More so in retrospect, considering the psychological turn that the ending takes.
Biju Menon is par excellence as Muthu, where he walks the fine line between submitting to authority while also maintaining his natural composure so as to not invite unwanted suspicion. The scene where he and Aparna Balamurali get the news of the death of a loved one is terrific for proving how measured these actors can be with exhibiting hefty emotions. Girish Kulkarni heading the police side of affairs makes for another entertaining act. The whole entourage of policemen don’t display histrionics or eccentricities, and they bring in a very lived-in feeling to the proceedings.
Kannan has darkness in him that seems to be coming from suppressed emotions, and we get fleeting moments of his character that are quite striking. The way he snaps at Muthu for a logistic issue, and immediately gets back to being his warm self, is unsettling to say the least. This is essentially what the writing is trying to do at first, amidst a seemingly plot-heavy narrative – reveal character in drops, as opposed to a single pouring.
But when the pouring happens towards the end, it doesn’t land like the sucker punch that it should have been. The gravity of themes that Kannan was in, is never felt. I wish we could’ve gotten a glimpse of it, through a couple more moments in the beginning itself, especially in place of a montage. The distance between the story’s central character and the viewer is the primary undoing of this film. We needed more time with Kannan. It can be argued that the film is trying to dissect only the idea behind the character’s death and not the character itself, but my truth as a viewer is that I still don’t know Kannan to the degree that would make his death affect me to a substantial extent.
It is fairly evident what point the makers are trying to make – that a man, a literal (gold) rider and provider, will go to great lengths to project a facade even in his own death, rather than admitting that his mental health was in shambles. Even his closest ones would firstly want to keep up that facade rather than admit openly that something went wrong. There are those around him who believe he was always cursed, some who see him as weak to have made this decision, and another who gets all nihilistic about his death. I wish the film spent more time around these conflicting ideologies, instead of stretching out the dailies of the investigation.
Syam has built his screenplay with two investigations. The first is more of an incident compared to the full-blown investigation that follows, but this is where we get familiar with the characters through how they deal with their situation. Even when this ordeal ends, we haven’t gotten to the inciting incident of the bigger story. Once we get there is when the film changes course and becomes an intriguing crime piece. The narrative doesn’t allow any space to think about the shift in genre, as the investigation organically spirals into a series of engaging situations. These portions are amusingly diverse – there’s comedy, there’s a chase, and even an almost mass-y action block. This would also make for a good double-bill with Rajeev Ravi’s Kuttavum Shikshayum (also the superior film), for the trust it places on presenting the nitty-gritties of an investigation.
Malayalam cinema’s control in dramatising the most realistic of narratives, with cinematic finesse, continues to shine through with this film. The more I think about it, this is an easily exciting idea to work on. It’s a structure pushed forward by reliable narrators – because nobody’s really lying – leading up to a reveal about the death of the actual unreliable narrator. But Thankam fails to realise its individual potential by not landing the balancing act between being a character study and a procedural.