Thallumaala movie review: Energetic, experimental, empty
Tovino Thomas is loveable, but Thallumaala’s lively soundtrack and visual gimmicks conspire to generate a sensory overload that camouflages a thin-as-a-pappadum story and emotional emptiness.
castTovino Thomas, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Lukman Avaran, Shine Tom Chacko, Binu Pappu, Bhanumathi Payyannur, Johny Antony, Chemban Vinod Jose
“Honestly, I can’t recall where it all started…” These are among the first words uttered by Wasim (Tovino Thomas) in Thallumaala’s introductory seconds. By the end of the film, I could have said the same thing.
Director Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala, written by Muhsin Parari and Ashraf Hamza, begins with energy, action, comedy and all the promise that comes from being a film starring Tovino who makes everything he is associated with the better for his presence.
As the narrative moves forward, more interesting actors walk in. There’s Lukman Avaran who, as we know from Unda, has the ability to earn the spotlight even in a supporting part in a superstar-led venture – Lukman plays Wasim’s foe turned friend, Jamshi. There’s Bhanumathi Payyannur as Jamshi’s mother, who elevates to a fine art the simple act of inviting a son’s enemy home. There’s Kalyani Priyadarshan who leaves her imprint on Thallumaala with her attractive personality even as the woman she plays, Fathima Beevi, never escapes the straitjacket of being the male lead’s ‘love interest’.
Tovino and a dazzling colour palette are as good a place to kick off as any. Before long though Thallumaala’s frenetic editing and visual gimmicks start distracting from its actors, characters and plot. A glut of graphics, chapter titles, illustrations introducing chapters, characters apparating in and out of scenes, flashbacks, a scene freezing into a still photograph that crumples up and is washed away in the basin of a bathroom where a different scene is taking place, a tooth breaking out of a man’s mouth and flying towards the audience, wipe transitions, memes, split screens, news bulletins in animated form, a video game featuring characters in Thallumaala, etc, etc (pause for breath), etc… it gets exhausting after a while, more so because the film has no soul.
Revise the opening sentence in the previous paragraph: the gimmicks do not distract from the plot – along with the lively soundtrack, they conspire to generate a sensory overload that camouflages a thin-as-a-pappadum story and emotional emptiness.
The subtitler had given the film a poetic, alternate English title for its theatrical release, Ballad of Brawls, that I could not spot when I rewatched it on Netflix this week. That is just as well I guess, since the literal translation of Thallumaala given in the trailer – A Chain of Fights – more accurately conveys what the film is: literally, a stringing together of countless fisticuffs, in slow motion that would put a snail to shame.
The only fight in Thallumaala that does not feel mechanical and hollow is staged inside a moving vehicle. It is effective not because it is trying to impress but because, unlike the rest, there is a build-up of genuine tension leading up to and within that situation.
To the extent that the story is decipherable, here it is. Wasim helps his father (Johny Antony) run a movie theatre that’s been struggling to stay afloat. He is routinely embroiled in physical confrontations, one setting off another and then another, until videos of a massive public showdown turn him into an Internet sensation. Then he gets into more fights. Then some more.
On the periphery lies Wasim’s relationship with Fathima Beevi a.k.a. Beepathu. She is an Internet celebrity, which may soon be the most popular ‘profession’ for young women in films that do not take women seriously (rewind to the heroine’s ambition in the recent Telugu-Hindi release, Liger).
This is my linear narration for the purpose of this review, extracted from the chaotic criss-crossing of plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots in Thallumaala. Having watched the film twice, I can tell you that a lot of men bash up a lot of other men in it, but I still have not figured out why in some cases. It’s not only that the storytelling is confusing, but that it didn’t motivate me to try.
In Wasim and Beepathu’s stereotypical love saga, she misbehaves during their initial encounter and shows him the middle finger when he protests. The scene is grounded in the belief long held dear by large sections of mainstream Indian directors and writers that man-woman romances can be born only out of conflict, misunderstandings and hostility; and increasingly – this one is a more recent theory – that unpleasantness is a marker of sassiness and swag in a woman.
That said, Beepathu is a step up from the marginalisation of women that has been a drawback in all Khalid Rahman’s films so far, whether Anuraga Karikkin Vellam and Unda that have so much else to recommend them or the toxic, over-stylised Love.
Thallumaala’s sense of humour fizzles out after its early dialogues, and the comic timing of its actors is gradually drowned out by the din of the background score, sound design and loud graphics that, among other things, indicate exclamations, grunts and groans.
The screen is so crowded and flashy, and the effort to appear with-it so transparent, that it feels as if a little boy not unlike Quentin Tarantino is showing off his new toys to the bro and dude club that thinks QT, David Fincher’s Fight Club, American superhero films and Lijo Jose Pellissery are above being questioned.
The vacuousness is unfortunate because in part, I enjoyed the experimentation with form and format that Khalid Rahman is attempting here. This film is a true-blue, old-fashioned musical that harks back to an earlier era of Indian cinema as also to Hollywood’s (infrequent) interpretation of the genre and Western stage musicals where the weight of the storytelling is/was borne by songs.
Vishnu Vijay has created some truly delightful numbers for Thallumaala. The use of English and Arabic in the lyrics makes sense, Hindi not so much. The pick of the collection for me is Ole melody in which the tune, the orchestration, the singing, the acting, Salim Kumar’s cameo and the production design all fall into place perfectly. The other that stands out features some pretty solid rapping by Tovino in incredibly cute mode.
Also worth noting is the normalised representation of Muslims in Thallumaala, and Christian characters shown as being not particularly different from them.
I suppose it could be said that this film is about how endless cycles of violence can be sparked off by a single instance of aggression, but if that is the intention, the point is lost when the hero is rewarded with fame and a woman’s affections.
Perhaps instead, Thallumaala is about public figures of a certain kind unable to come to terms with Internet celebritydom, as indicated by a scene in which a writer is condescending towards Wasim on a stage they both share. The audience here sides with Wasim but also goads him into being the worst that he can be, thus giving us what is perhaps the only scene in the film that is complex at a scripting level.
Thallumaala’s determination to be considered hip is epitomised by a flashback being announced with the words “oru (one) flashback” popping up on screen, and a later one preceded by “mattoru (another) flashback”. Oh c’mon, you might as well have written “look at us, we are so trendy” instead. Elsewhere, as Fathima watches Wasim engaged in a giant fracas that would upset any normal woman, she starts casually eating popcorn. Okay, okay, we get what you’re trying to say – Beepathu is cool, Thallumaala is cool.
Ultimately, the catchy songs and Tovino’s allure notwithstanding, Thallumaala is all sound and fury and show sans substance. Genuinely cool folk do not have to try so hard.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)
Thallumaala is now streaming on Netflix
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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