In this part of the series, MT: Malayalam’s Talisman, we dissect three films Valarthumrugangal, Thrishna and Aaroodam.

Valarthumrugangal (Domesticated Animals) (1981)

Cast: Sukumaran, Madhavi, Balan K Nair, Nagesh, Ratheesh, Nanditha Bose, and K P Ummer.

Director: Hariharan

The circus. What a marvellous place! Full of extraordinary people and animals. Doing feats of wonder.

Flying through the air, jumping through hoops on fire, contorting bodies in unimaginable ways.  Everyone looks happy, always smiling. 

You always hear about the circus before actually encountering it. if you grew up with Enid Blyton, you know there would be a kind Galliano taking care of everyone. It is a magical place and you wished if you were there!

At your first encounter itself, the dirtiness of the circus strikes you. Damaged chairs, smudged canvas, and smelly animals, even from a distance. 

As a kid, you would see something odd about those smiles, because they vanish once people get to their turn of actions. Living in a tent holds no attraction if confronted with the obvious question – where is the bathroom?

Valarthumrugangal, adapted by MT from his own short story, shows the lives of people who enact the circus. 

It is a tough life of hardships and bondage and exploitation to the core. Less surprisingly, the title does not stand for the animals in the circus.

Kumaran Gurukkal (Balan K Nair) runs a street troupe with Nanu (Nagesh), Lakshmi (Bose), and two kids — Janu and Chandran. However, it barely makes ends meet. 

Kumaran was once famous in circus circles before he fell on hard times. He swallows his pride and meets his friend who runs the Malabar Circus, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair. Kumaran’s gang joins it. Though there was no respect, at least they do not starve now. 

Years passed. Lakshmi is no longer active and is now reduced to the status of a helper for other performers. Janu (Madhavi) and Chandran (Ratheesh) are the trapeze artistes. Nanu is still working as a clown, while Kumaran hangs around doing menial tasks. There is a new boss, Gopi (K P Ummer), who wants to shake things up. 

He hires daredevil Bhaskaran (Sukumaran) who does stunts on moving cars and motorcycles. He also has his eyes fixed on Janu. Valarthumrugangal, the short story, is a very thin slice of circus life. It is a small 15-page takedown of the facade of circus life. The movie needs more meat. So, the story of the street troupe is added, and it works well. Bhaskaran is the hero of the movie, as opposed to a nameless mention. But the underlying emotion is the same. 

Balan K Nair gets a rare positive role. It is strange to see the legendary villain in such a role, with no negative traits at all. Nagesh, a Tamil comedian known as the Jerry Lewis of India, is another actor who played against type. Though he essays a clown, it is a very emotional portrayal, and it is surprising how big a supporting role he shoulders. Sukumaran brings the panache while Ratheesh goes down meek-and-weak. 

None of the other actors let down the script and it has an aha moment when an uncredited bystander, who would go on to become Chitra. There are a few actresses who have made a career in the Malayalam industry from other states. Madhavi started with Telugu movies. 

Her Malayalam filmography is not that extensive, but she has some memorable roles that people still talk about. Hariharan introduced her to Malayalam the previous year in Lava. Here she is in fine form. Neither the skimpy dresses nor the heavy lifting in the acting department fazes her. She would go on to work in other movies with Hariharan. Almost two decades later, MT and Hariharan would bring to Madhavi her strongest role. 

Valarthumrugangal is a bleak movie. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. You see some unfortunate lives and feel guilty for having a good time at their expense. By a curious coincidence, I watched this movie shortly after reading the article about the Ringling Bros Circus reopening without animals. MT would disagree, the animals are still there. 

Film: Thrishna (Longing) (1981)

Cast: Mammootty, Swapna, Rajyalakshmi, Jose Prakash, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, and Sankaradi

Director: I V Sasi

A convertible snakes up the hairpin curves on the way to a hill station. An attractive couple sit wordlessly. The man stops the car to have a smoke and stretch his legs. He pauses to admire the view. The woman joins him. 

“Have you been to Ooty before?” he asks. 

“Yes,” she replies. 

“With whom?” he asks.

With these seemingly simplistic but highly intentional exchanges, MT Vasudevan Nair drops us into a dynamic that is rare even in today’s cinema – that of a rich man and his escort. 

Das (Mammootty) decides to take a vacation in his bungalow in the hill station of Kodaikanal. He takes Jayasree (Swapna) along with him. The bungalow is taken care of by Parameshwaran (Sankaradi) who tells everyone that the couple were married. Since their stay was short, the white lie didn’t hurt. Das plays along. 

Captain Panicker (Jose Prakash), Das’ father’s friend, and his neighbour drop in for a visit along with his family. Das is intrigued by Panicker’s younger daughter Sreedevi (Rajyalakshmi), who is estranged from her husband and living with her parents. He spends more time with her than with his expensive escort. Jayasree is not bothered and spends time exploring the beautiful place. 

Parameshwaran’s son Gopakumar (Rajkumar), a tourist guide, accompanies his master’s ‘wife’ who has captured his fascination. 

On the one hand, Thrishna is a straightforward love story. But it also functions as a commentary on societal norms and taboos. Surprisingly, despite its subject, it sends a strong message on women’s empowerment.

Malayalam cinema’s longest-surviving superstar, Mammootty, begins his Gavaskarian innings as a leading man in Thrishna. He was a last-minute replacement. With none of the star trappings to fetter him, the 30-year-old youngster plays a rogue with no admirable qualities. Mammooty is able to skip from being a chauvinist with Jayasree to a bumbling suitor before Sreedevi. 

Some people are identified by a certain work throughout their life. If you were to show Rajyalakshmi’s photo to people who saw Malayalam movies in the 80s, they would identify her as the Thrishna girl, even if they couldn’t recall her name. As the forever-sad Sreedevi, she doesn’t have much to do. One wonders if Das fell for the girl or for her grief. Swapna, on the other hand, has the most rounded character. 

An actress who was typecast as the bold bad girl during most of her career due to her modern looks, Swapna probably has one of her best characters here. 

Thrishna is remembered to this day because of its songs. Two of them – Mainaakam and Shruthiyil Ninnuyarum – would make an 80s playlist. 

Music director Shyam and lyricist Bichu Thirumala are at the top of their game. The cinematography by Jayanan Vincent captures the picturesque scenery of Kodaikanal and ably supports the songs. Jayanan is the elder son of A Vincent who directed some of MT’s earlier scripts.

I V Sasi piles on the drama but does leave some room for subtlety. The ending is extremely surprising, considering how the story was progressing. 

The film was rated ‘Adults Only’ probably for the subject matter rather than any skin that Swapna was displaying. Thrishna is a run of the mill MT fare. It stands out from the movies of the day, but doesn’t stand out in his filmography.

Film: Aaroodam (1983)

Cast: Nedumudi Venu, Lakshmi, Seema, Vimal, and Sonia

Director: I V Sasi 

The past will never stay hidden if you revisit it. 

Das (Nedumudi Venu) gave up his high-paying job in Bombay and relocated his wife Seetha (Lakshmi) and son Unni to his village in Kerala. Seetha didn’t like her new situation and kept on cribbing about it. Unni was enamoured with his new surroundings and the freedom with which he could roam around. He soon makes friends with Neeli, a lower-caste woman who lives alone in their compound, and her niece Paru (Sonia)

As the days go by, Seetha hears more and more stories about Das’ bachelor days. She started suspecting he had other reasons to come back to his village. 

Meanwhile, Unni and Neeli continue an unlikely friendship, one his mother was not happy with. The young boy couldn’t understand caste dynamics and what was driving his parents apart. But through him we discover fragments of the past.

Nedumudi Venu gets one of his rare leading man roles and relishes the part. Lakshmi has some biting lines, but is rather one-dimensional as a character. Seema dons almost blackface to essay Neeli. I would say it is extremely incorrect. However, in India, where the fairness of the skin is the most defining physical attribute, dark skin is identified with the lower caste. In a way, that action is placing the mirror in front of the audience. The child artistes – Vimal and Sonia – are incredibly believable

I was really surprised to see such a movie in I V Sasi’s filmography. MT had decided to bite into the caste divisions that existed then.

He chose not to attack it directly and left it to the audience to slowly pick up hints. For three-quarters of its length, Aaroodam is a movie going nowhere in particular. Then there are two outbursts that define the film and confirm the hints that MT was dangling before us. The ending is unexpected, but extremely effective.

I am not sure whether it is Sasi’s inexperience with really serious cinema or MT not yet at the heights of his powers, but Aaroodam seems to be less than what it should have been. There was an outstanding film waiting to be made and Aaroodam shows us glimpses of that, but not the whole thing. 

Read other parts of the series here

Vinu Syriac

Those who can, make movies. Those who can't, critique movies. Vinu Syriac doesn't make movies.

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