Directors: George Kora, Sam Xavier
Thoma (George Kora), the youngest of two brothers who lost their parents as kids, lives in the past. Before we meet him, we enter what feels like his dream, in which we see the incidents that follow the death of his parents. With no one to take care of him and his brother Sebastian (Gopi Krishnan), who has Down's Syndrome, we see striking images that make up their first night in an orphanage, before Thoma goes back even further to soothing memories of the good times with their parents.
Thomas only finds solace in these memories. Sebastian gets adopted, leaving Thoma with the inability to move on. Thoma wakes up in the present day to the sound of the early morning azaan. There's a voice note from his older brother wishing him Id Mubarak. Quite a lot has changed. Sebastian is now Ismail and we learn this as the azaan slowly makes way for the sound of a woman praying in front of a chapel, when Thoma walks to the cafe he works at.
From his memories, we quickly realise where Thoma gets this love for cooking from. As he bakes his first cake to the recording of his mother singing an old song in an even older cassette player, we slowly see the morning ritual that, perhaps, keeps Thoma going.
Thoma is also quite the charmer — he even gets a customer to give him a huge tip. This is even more evident in the way he tricks his girlfriend Sneha (a very likeable Namitha Krishnamoorthy) to buy him an expensive cricket bat on what appears to be his birthday. Had we not known his intentions and had we not fallen for his charms ourselves, we'd perhaps have called Thoma a manipulator.
He seems to have saved up a little money, which he hides diligently in the small tin case he's had since he was a child. Even the cricket bat isn't exactly for him. It isn't even his birthday. It's as though all of Thoma's actions are linked to Ismu and a return to their childhood when they were still a family.
Ismu might still be his older brother but they're not family anymore. Ismu is now the son of the Rafiques, a well-meaning couple who have no room for Thoma at their home. As Rafique puts it, "It's only rarely that we give Thoma permission to see Ismu." And when Ismu's adoptive mother (Shanti Krishna) tells Thoma that they're shifting to Dubai for good, he perhaps feels the same abandonment issues rushing back to him since his brother got adopted.
It's not that Thoma feels jealous of Ismu's more comfortable life. He even knows deep down that they take better care of Ismu than he ever can. Yet there's always the doubt in Thoma that Ismu might forget him like he forgot their parents. Feeling like an orphan twice isn't something most people can withstand.
Which is why Thirike or the return, is the title of this film. Ismu has already advanced from the age of playing cricket to the age of driving cars, but can Thoma do the same? Will returning to their combined past finally free Thoma to grow up emotionally to the state where he can finally let more people into his life?
The smallest of moments play out like mega events as we slowly piece together the dreamy past that Thoma seems to be stuck in. In what's a distinctly arresting visual, we see a booby trap that functions when colourful marbles fall over an empty metal vessel. In another scene, we get a lovely stretch where their stressed-out grandmother panics at the sight of Ismu doing his namaz. It never feels like the film's trying to make a highbrow statement about syncretism, gift-wrapped in sentimentality. These moments just are, floating along weightless thanks to the beautiful music (by Ankit Menon) and the visuals of Cherin Paul.
Like the tug-of-war that takes place when two separating parents fight for their child's custody, we see a film that delicately handles a similar conflict between Ismu's real and adoptive families. In parts, I was reminded of Kamal's Pookalam Varavayi in the way a trip away from the city leads to an introspection of where one stands in a family.
Yet it disappoints when you notice those delicate details missing in the film's biggest dramatic outbursts. The scene where Thoma finds their parents' grave should have felt like a blow from a sledgehammer. Even the scene where Sneha calls out Thoma for his selfishness should have hit harder, if not for the clunky staging. It feels like the directors' relied on the weight of performances alone instead of the super specific writing that had been the strength until then.
Like how inventively they bring back the driving metaphor to show us the brothers' return journey. Or even how they use visual motifs like Thoma sleeping right below Ismu, to show us how nothing's changed after all. Which is an important lesson to learn because the only way Thoma can grow beyond his memories is to make fresh ones.
Thirike, in many ways, is exactly the feel-good movie you thought it would be. But who really complains about going back to some comforting wholesome goodness that tells us that family matters most, yet again.