Thuramukham Movie Review: Technically competent, inconsistently engaging epic
For a subject that's supposed to make my blood boil, it didn't move me as much as I wanted it to
I don't know if the sound was designed in such a way that nearly all actors, unless when called upon to express feelings of contempt and anger or yell slogans, sounded like they were whispering their lines. (I saw it in Vanitha, one of Kochi's most well-equipped theatres known for superior audio and visual quality.) Most often, they get lost in the film's background score and ambient sounds, and, naturally, some of the lines from the film's early portions were incomprehensible to me. I fought, in various instances, the urge to ask a fellow viewer the meaning. Fortunately, this doesn't hinder the way the film sets up the principal characters and their connections to each other. It's obvious who is who.
Director: Rajeev Ravi
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Poornima Indrajith, Arjun Ashokan, Indrajith Sukumaran, Nimisha Sajayan, Darshana Rajendran, Sudev Nair, Manikandan Achari
Nivin Pauly is Moidu, a son whose father Mymood's (Joju George) sudden absence during childhood imposes serious character deficiencies once he grows up. So when he, a labourer, allies with the same capitalist oppressor Pacheek -- Sudev Nair, doing what he always does best -- that taunted his father, it seems like Moidu sees in Pacheek a surrogate father figure. Just like one of those American house slaves, Moidu curries favour with Pacheek and ends up as one of his hired goons. Given Mymood's history with Pacheek, one can tell that this wouldn't be the beautiful friendship that Moidu hoped it would be. Nivin comfortably gets into the skin of Moidu, transitioning from a naive and misguided youngster to a full-fledged thug ready to do anything at his master's bidding. It's a life that neither his mother (Poornima Indrajith), brother (Arjun Ashokan) and sister (Darshana Rajendran) don't approve of.
A chronicle of the cruel and unfair 'chappa' system of recruiting labourers, wherein metal coin tokens (chappa) were dispersed into the air until they reach the 'lucky' ones, Thuramukham depicts the uneasy alliance between stevedore contractors, supervisors, and two opposing unions, which gets murkier and murkier as the film progresses. While trying to document this little-known, formative piece of Kerala history (from Kochi-Mattanchery) that impacted many marginalised families, director-cinematographer Rajeev Ravi trains his lens on the members of one family and their well-wishers, whose lives get affected by the machinations of the exploiters.
Aside from, of course, the places where certain pieces of dialogue are inaudible, the film's screenplay does a fine job of giving us a sense of its fairly epic scale, aside from an idea of how the chappa system and the different kinds of unions operated back then, and how caste and community played a big part in it. For instance, those capable of paying a 'donation' or discreet appeasement were on the priority list of these supervisors, while the others were left to struggle without work. Their lives depended on the 'chappa'.
The conflict arises out of the clash between two unions, Cochin Thuramukha Thozhilali Union (C.T.T.U) and Port Cargo Labour Union (P.C.L.U) when the former gets into a joint venture arrangement with the contractors and agents, with the authority of deciding who to give the chappa resting solely on them. Parallely, Gopan Chidambaram's script of Thuramukham also functions as a Cain and Abel story where Moidu's younger brother Hamza (Arjun Ashokan) joins the P.C.L.U, the attempts of which are constantly being thwarted by Moidu and his thugs at the behest of Pacheek. Thuramukham feels like a darker companion piece of Kammattipadam, given the common themes of loyalty and betrayal they share. There are no victors here, only losers.
Yes, the men are the catalysts for the events in Thuramukham, but the women are left to live with the repercussions of the men after they vanish. None of the women has it easy, be it the mother, sister, or Umani (Nimisha Sajayan), the woman rescued by Moidu but for whom Hamza has a soft corner. Thuramukham gives Poornima the most well-etched character, which she aces to perfection. Despite the ordeals the character has to endure as a wife and mother, Poornima keeps her performance prominently understated -- it's devoid of melodrama, even when the character eventually reaches the inevitable breaking point.
It's evident the film wants us to feel a certain way about Nivin's Moidu, and it succeeds at keeping a measure of detachment between him and us, which makes sense because Moidu is not a character that, irrespective of the redemption arc that he attains in the third act, is supposed to be heroic. However, the film, I feel, behaves oddly when it comes to Arjun's Hamza. Here's someone who is supposed to be the most endearing of all the male characters in Thuramukham; however, I felt emotionally disengaged from this character or his numerous attempts at self-sacrifice.
My other gripe with Thuramukham is with respect to the portrayal of the struggle. For a subject that's supposed to make my blood boil, it didn't move me as much as I wanted it to. I recall encountering the same problem with another film about marginalised groups, Pada, which, like Thuramukham, was technically competent but failed to engage on a deeply visceral level. I thought Indrajith Sukumaran's character Santo Gopalan channelled the revolutionary spirit far better than some of his comrades.
Besides, it didn't help that the film's background score, which would sound better as a standalone piece, feels mismatched when placed alongside the events it should enhance. For its lion's share, Thuramukham has a notably slow guitar and saxophone-infused soundtrack that doesn't go well with the previously mentioned whispery conversations and moments of brooding and mundane activity.
If anything, Rajeev Ravi's eminently striking visual style -- aided by art director Gokul Das -- continues to hold our attention. Capturing a time without electricity, the filmmaker immerses the characters in amber lighting, shadows, and silhouettes. At times the remarkably atmospheric imagery resembles pages from graphic novels and westerns. But how far can beautiful visuals take us without a consistently engaging screenplay?