Director: Shanavas K Bavakkutty
Cast: Vinayakan, Priyamvada Krishnan, Roshan Mathew
Music composer: Leela Girish Kuttan
Cinematography: Suresh Rajan
In Shanavas Bavakkutty’s Thottappan, the protagonist is a thief with amusing principles. He doesn’t steal from people, but from churches and temples,institutions he doesn’t believe in. And his most trusted ally in these thefts is the priest of a local parish who believes everything belongs to Jesus Christ. The latter looks forward to these pre-robbery meetings like a child awaiting a game session – perhaps because there aren’t many pastimes he can find in the remote backwater hamlet where his impoverished church and the attached orphanage are.
Illustrations as these, of people leading strange lives in a milieu on the margins, is what Thottappan is about. It doesn’t really have a great story to narrate, at least not a story that you have never heard of. But the way it charts this territory, an archipelago where fishermen, duck-rearers and clam collectors live in peace alongside thieves and policemen, makes the film a remarkable watch. Ithaak (Vinayakan), a small-time thief, takes under his wings the daughter and wife (Sunitha CV) of his friend Jonappan (Dileesh Pothan) who left for the city one evening and never returned. The wife has resigned into a stony silence after her husband’s departure, and Sarah, Ithaak’s godchild, is a near-orphan. She grows like a wildflower, fiery and often uncared for, but possesses a strange, irresistible beauty that, eventually, leads to a great tragedy.
It isn’t easy to figure out the village’s moral compass and geographical details. Women move around, curse, drink, clamour, love and mate, without any inhibition. Men, on the other hand, struggle to balance their roles as providers and controllers. But at the end of the day, the villagers are a bunch of outcasts; lesser beings in a bigger mainstream world – like Sarah’s (Priyamvada Krishnan) school where she is a kitchen assistant and a housemaid to her casteist teachers who won’t lend her a sanitary napkin or let her use their washroom.
In the film, characters steal for various reasons. Sarah and her friend, a little boy from the neighborhood, nick sweets and currency notes of 10s and 20s from an affable blind shopkeeper Adruman (Raghunath Paleri), more out of habit than need. With a little help from Ithaak, a grandmother snaps the lock of the kitchen her caretaker had locked up before going to bed, and they relish meat curries and rice on the family’s dining table. A young man from a well-to-do family trusts Ithaak to steal his wife’s jewels. If these acts of thieving are a light affair in the first half, like little pranks that aid life in this village, they gradually turn darker and corrupt in the second half, especially after the arrival of an outsider, a young duck-rearer (Roshan Mathew as Ismail).
In the film’s source material, an acclaimed novella by writer Francis Norona, Sarah learns the nuances of the art of thieving from Ithaak and wrestles with the rights and wrongs of it. In the film, Ithaak keeps her out of the morally dubious business. But, by doing so, Bavakkutty and his writer PS Rafeeq miss the chance to showcase her in her entirety. Despite her innate fiery nature, she remains a stereotypical heroine, cherubic (see how she doesn’t give in to her lover’s gentle persuasions for a kiss) and with little command over the flow of the narrative. You don’t really get to know if she approves of Ithaak’s profession. She is nearly passive towards her mother’s silence and her feelings towards Ismail appear muddled. Three deaths in the film happen in close connection to her. But the film doesn’t care to zoom into her; instead, it shows us the men Ithaak, Ismail, Paily (Sunil Sukhada) and Anthraper (Lal), and the ‘filmy’ stunts they indulge in.
Ismail’s villainy is patchy too. One of the factors that stops us from seeing his dubious motives is the soul-stirring soundtrack of the film, composed by Leela Girish Kuttan and Justin Varghese (background score). The song sequence Meene starts off from Ismail’s face, lit with joy on seeing Sarah. You see most of their courtship from his perspective, and the lightness of the visuals and the music convinces us of his sincerity. When the film tells you otherwise in the latter half, you feel more betrayed than intrigued. And, the film’s strongest tool to cancel his credibility is his parentage – he is the son of a backstabber and he turns out to be an exact copy – and it turns the film weak at its foundation. Why not give this pivotal character a unique identity instead of borrowing it from his father whom we don’t get to see much?
Suresh Rajan’s cinematography is intelligent, striking a great balance between dreamy and sensitive. His camera looks beyond the touristy picturesqueness of Kadamakkudy, the chief location, and goes to find its dark labyrinth-like nature. There are some excellent shots, like in the scene where an anxious Adruman enters his bedroom or when Ithaak, with a heavy secret in his heart, walks around in stress.
Vinayakan effortlessly separates Ithaak from all the characters he has played before. There is a certain tiredness, or rather, a subtle hesitation in his body-language. He pauses for a micro-second before he delivers a blow on his rivals, as though he is summing up his fury. In the scene where he tells Sarah of how Ismail reminds him of Jonappan, he smiles shyly, perhaps because he is aware of the silliness of his finding or because he is, for the first time, acknowledging Sarah as a full-grown woman, ready to be married off. But the real finding is Priyamvada Krishnan who brings on screen a madness we hardly expect from a newcomer. Priyamvada plays Sarah with an inexplicable and fascinating urgency. Her mannerisms, gait and diction are unpolished, in perfect sync with the earthy rawness of the village; sometimes, she is the village. Thottappan ends up somewhere in between unforgettable and passable, but we might have just witnessed the coming of a fine acting talent.
The Thottappan review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.