Director: Jeethu Joseph
Cast: Karthi, Jyotika, Sathyaraj, Nikhila Vimal
In interviews that followed the massive success of his film Drishyam, director Jeethu Joseph kept reiterating how it was unfair to except a similar murder mystery from him. Besides its Tamil remake Papanasam, he chose to make films in various genres, with middling results. Flash forward to December 2019 and he has two releases, both hinting at a possible return to form and his strongest genre. If his Hindi film The Body was the remake of a Spanish film, in his first Tamil original, he tries really hard to recreate the magic of the film that made him a household name. But, having watched Thambi, what you're left with is an overwhelming amount of respect for Drishyam, because you can clearly see how easily things could have gone wrong with that.
The similarities between both are difficult to overlook. Thambi too places a family at its centre; a troubled boy goes missing. It's a whack to the head (we get two more later) that sets off a chain of events, and the film's first hour is kept deceptively light, only to make way for some heavy-duty twists and turns. Dig a little deeper, and we see how Thambi too is about the efforts of its characters to keep an all-important lie alive. Yet, its moral universe is more complex because every significant character in the film is painted a dark shade of grey.
Saravanan (Karthi) is a standard-issue fraud who lives off petty crimes in Goa. We also get a prosperous family in Mettupalayam that lives in the hope that the son, who went missing 15 years ago, will return. Enter a police officer who connects the dots, and voila, Saravanan becomes the missing son. Initially, the tension comes from Saravanan trying to convince members of this family and the people around them that he is who they've been waiting for. A few, like his childhood sweetheart Sanjana (Nikhila Vimal) and the parents are fairly easy to convince. The grandmother and the sister, not so much.
Is the film about an outsider charming his way into this family to eventually cheat them for a huge bounty? Or is it about the family catching his bluff, only to retreat into its own disappointed shell, having lost the son again? Given that this is a Jeethu Joseph film, is there more to these people than what meets the eye?
The problem with the film is that it tries to do all three. Despite the complicated themes, Drishyam was still a very cleanly written film. Everything fit like a puzzle, making it hard to remove even a single scene or character from it. Thambi is muddled with far too many 'what-ifs', sub-plots and characters. One of these, involving a corporate trying to usurp a piece of land, involves so much screentime you're surprised at how little it has to do with the final reveal. And certain characters, like a rival politician, are so confusingly written that they only serve as red herrings, but without any real reason.
Yet, what's surprising in this family film is how poorly the emotions are worked out. The sister-brother relationship has been the film's major selling point, yet it's also the film's least effective. We never understand what's going on in her head. Is it disbelief or regret? Why do we get scenes like the birthday party where we see her attitude changing? Is it only to further complicate what the audience is thinking? Because it becomes really difficult to place it within the truths of the film.
We also get lifeless songs and elaborate fight sequences that take away from the film's pace and mood. But beyond these, Thambi is a film that gives far too much weightage to the final twist. It's not just about if you saw it coming. It's about how difficult the film makes it for us to stay invested till we even reach that point. And even when we get the big reveal, it involves so much explaining and talking that it feels like the writer is fixing all the plot holes and doubts in one go.
Of course, the basic plotline in Thambi could have been developed into a perfectly engaging film, like the old 80's Malayalam murder mystery Charithram. But it's so needlessly complicated that it becomes difficult to even see it as a thriller. It doesn't come close to Drishyam, but does the core idea work well as a companion piece, with a role reversal of epic proportions? It certainly does.