Sunday, January 29, 2023

Two views of fighting – in two terrific new Malayalam films

(From my Economic Times column)

I’m not much into year-end “best-of” rankings, but two Malayalam films I recently watched – Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala and Vipin Das’s Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey – would make my informal list of favourite Indian films of 2022. Though very different in terms of form and plot, both can broadly be described as action movies.

This is much more pronounced in the case of Thallumaala (English translation “Ballad of Brawls”), a story about young men who get into fights, and then fight some more, and then again, on their way to developing strong bonds with each other – and possibly (but don’t count on it) acquiring some self-awareness along the way. In Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, on the other hand, the action sequences are restricted to a couple of pivotal moments (with WWE-style commentary!) where a young woman retaliates, with unexpected swag, to a husband who randomly smacks her whenever he is in a bad mood.

Both films, again in very different ways, grapple with what Woke critics and viewers routinely describe as “toxic masculinity”. And yet both are light-hearted in tone and execution. This is more notable in the case of JJJJH because it is more explicitly an issue film. I thought it dealt with domestic abuse – and the insidious ways in which a benevolent-seeming patriarchy can reveal its full colours – more interestingly than another, much-praised Malayalam film from last year, The Great Indian Kitchen. And this owes in part to JJJJH’s sense of humour. I have watched dozens of well-subtitled movies, but while watching this one – especially during the chatty family scenes where danger lurks below the surface of droll comedy, and every mumbled aside seems relevant – I really wished I knew the language.

The narrative manages the tricky balancing act of being funny without diluting its depth of feeling for Jaya (Darshana Rajendran). She is sharp and has a mind of her own, but she is also vulnerable, and has been ever since her childhood when her parents’ apparent love for her went alongside preferential treatment given to her brother. Meanwhile her husband Rajesh (played by the genial-looking Basil Joseph, who also directed last year’s popular Minnal Murali) is far from the stereotype of the aggressive alpha-male, and is presented as a whiny mama’s boy at times – but this doesn’t take away from the very real damage he causes.

Where JJJJH is fairly straightforward in narrative terms, Thallumaala is an exuberantly showy, stylish work. Its opening words, by the protagonist Wazim (Tovino Thomas), almost suggest a form of brain damage, or at least a brain fog, brought on by too much fighting (“Honestly I can’t remember where it all started. Let me try”) – and indeed a non-linear narrative, packed with nervous energy, follows. The frenetic pace – including scene transitions from animation to live action and back, rapid-fire editing, crazy costumes and costume changes – suggests how important nonstop movement is to these young people’s lives. Such is the circular narrative, at the end you might not be sure of what happened when, and who took revenge on whom after which fight. But that may be part of the point.

There is a simple boy-girl love story at the centre of it all, but the film is equally about male friendships that can be as intense, and as violent, as a romantic relationship. (“I found my friends while fighting,” Wazim tells us.) Watching it, I was reminded (and not just because of the shared word “ballad”, which brings a sense of poetry to violence and even bad behaviour) of passages from Eminem’s great, restless song “Drug Ballad”. (“What's a little spinal fluid between you and a friend?
Screw it! And what's a little bit of alcohol poisoning?
And what's a little fight? Tomorrow, you'll be boys again
It's your life, live it however you wanna…

Among other things Thallumaala is a celebration of the human body’s possibilities, whether in battle or in dance. It is full of masala moments done with great conviction: Tovino, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Shine Tom Chacko and the other performers throw themselves whole-heartedly into the pulpy mode, from the glitzy musical scenes to brutally choreographed action. Does this film have a “message”? It’s hard to say. One could point out that everything pivots around the lovers’ need to be united irrespective of the chaos surrounding them. On the other hand, maybe this is simply a paean to fisticuffs, like Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking was a celebration of (or a yearning for) something that destroys one’s health. Some viewers will always judge a film according to whether its politics are “correct”, but what if it simply chooses to be a matter-of-fact depiction of the less savoury but important impulses in human nature?

Of course, it’s hard to say what would happen if the universe inhabited by Wazim and his friends were to collide with the one that Jaya lives in. It’s fun to imagine that she’d kick their collective asses and send them wailing to their mamas, but it’s as likely that she’d get addicted to brawling herself, and become part of the gang.

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