Cast: Nivin Pauly, Arjun Ashokan, Poornima Indrajith, Nimisha Sajayan, Joju George, Indrajith Sukumaran, Darshana Rajendran, Sudev Nair, Manikandan R. Achari
Director: Rajeev Ravi
Dehumanising the oppressed and setting them up against each other in a battle for survival is an age-old strategy used by dominant communities to ensure that their hegemony remains unchallenged. In Thuramukham, the muthalaali class has workers fighting it out for the finite opportunities available to them. Tokens would be tossed at an assembly who would then scramble desperately for a prized coin – getting your hands on one would mean the difference between getting work that day or returning home empty-handed to a starving family.
Director Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramukham (The Harbour) recounts the battle to end such degrading capitalist practices in Kochi’s Mattancherry area and ensure fair distribution of work. The film has been ready for release for two years and has been widely discussed in this time, so it is already known, as Rajeev has told the media, that it is based on a play by K.M. Chidambaram, adapted for the screen by Gopan Chidambaram, and set in the couple of decades leading up to police firing against protesting workers in 1953. Thuramukham chronicles this tragedy and the workers’ movement preceding it.
The story is told through two generations of a fictional family: first come Maimu (Joju George), his wife (Poornima Indrajith) and their three offspring, next is the wife with the three grown-up children after Maimu disappears. The star-studded ensemble cast includes Nivin Pauly playing the eldest, a son called Moidu, Arjun Ashokan as his younger brother Hamza, and Darshana Rajendran as their sister Khadija. When a pretty young woman called Ummani enters their lives, she becomes the object of both brothers’ romantic interest, deepening the antagonism that has already scalded their relationship.
The siblings’ response to their exploitation is a portrait in contrasts: Moidu is an opportunist, Hamza a rebel. Hamza joins the workers’ efforts to unionise, only to find that a corrupt union can become a tool in the hands of capitalist enterprise. The three women are left to suffer the consequences of the men’s choices in a patriarchal order that curbs their agency.
A considerable part of Thuramukham sails along on the combined effect of the shock generated by the Mattancherry business owners’ cruelty, visual grandeur and the collective charisma of this cast. The starkness of the storytelling is kept consistent by restricting the palette even after a shift from black and white to colour.
Rajeev Ravi is one of India’s most accomplished cinematographers, and has done this directorial venture a huge favour by shooting it himself. His camerawork gives Thuramukham scale that comes not only from the ships and wide expanse of water on display, but also the manner in which he frames congregations of human bodies. Masses of men jostling each other in the presence of the master and his flunkeys, workers’ marches, a throng of women racing down a street where the bloodied bodies of men lie – each stunning image competes with the next for the crown of the film’s best.
Once the primary characters and the situation are established though, Thuramukham seems to distance itself from them even while maintaining the spectacle, recounting events with a detachment that gradually robs the film of emotional heft.
The tension in the climactic confrontation between the police and the workers is palpable, but by then too many characters have walked in and out of the picture without any substantial effort at characterisation that would have kept the heart of the film beating.
The individuals who have got the maximum attention from the writer are Moidu and Hamza. Nivin Pauly does something here that is pretty hard to achieve for a role played by an actor this likeable: he makes Moidu dislikeable. Cast against type, Arjun Ashokan combines grit with tenderness in his measured rendition of Hamza.
Within the limitations of the writing of the remaining players in the script, the one who pulls a rabbit out of her hat to make Moidu and Hamza’s Umma special is Poornima Indrajith. First though let’s address the bizarreness of getting a woman in her early 40s to play the mother of Nivin’s character– Nivin is approaching 40. The argument that Poornima is covering two stages in the same person’s life does not hold water since her older avatar takes up a bulk of her screen time. This casting choice also needs to be viewed against the overall scenario for women actors in the Malayalam film industry: those past their early youth are routinely discarded, and age-appropriate roles are rarely written for female actors in their 30s, 40s and 50s. In contrast, male stars not only get longevity but also, weirdly enough, some of them continue to play youngsters after they have crossed 50, even 60, in real life and/or they have young women playing their sisters, romantic partners and spouses. “Will she pull it off?” and “Come on, it’s a great challenge for an actor” are deflections to avoid introspection and instead to steer the focus on to the woman’s abilities. Yes, Poornima does pull it off, because she is a fine actor, but her talent is no excuse for the unsavoury truth that this industry is ageist towards women artistes.
With the emptiness in her eyes, Poornima signifies a world weariness that is heart-breaking to behold. With a single glance she conveys oceans of understanding that render dialogues redundant. This is a career-defining performance made all the more wondrous by the fact that she has not been given the space accorded to Nivin and Arjun, but she owns the film anyway.
The rest are all one-note characters that are striking only to the extent that the actors’ screen presence makes them so. The sketchy writing is particularly troubling in the treatment of Moidu and Ummani’srelationship. The script needed to address her attraction towards him despite his aggression whenever they are alone together, but it does not.
Thuramukham is Rajeev Ravi’s fifth directorial work. Of the five, Kammatipaadam (2016) is closest to this film in terms of ambition and intent. Rajeev has spoken of his keenness to document neglected histories through cinema. In this regard, Thuramukham does the job he set out to do .However, Kammatipaadam did more than just that. That film was brilliant because it presented an array of intricately carved characters that have survived in public memory even today. Thuramukham’s undoing is the surface treatment of most of its characters whose memorability is too reliant on the recall value of the known stars playing them.
As a spectacle, Thuramukham is overwhelming. But as a film recording for posterity the ignored struggles of marginalised peoples, my vote for wholesomeness goes to Kammatipaadam and, among recent releases, writer-director Kamal K.M.’s Pada from 2022.
Thuramukham is, nevertheless, significant for playing spoilsport in a world where it is the eternal goal of oppressors to ensure that their stories are never told by those with empathy for the oppressed. A well-begun film starring a parade of marquee names and shot so beautifully is bound to draw attention to the police action against protesting workers all those years back in a way that no academic text ever can. Locals and historians are best equipped to assess the accuracy of the scenarios from that episode depicted in Thuramukham, but from a layperson’s point of view this is an achievement worth lauding.
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Thuramukham is in theatres
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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