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03 November 2017

Kakkothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal (1988)

Directed by: Kamal
Music: Ouseppachan
Lyrics: Bichu Thirumala
Starring: Revathi, Ambika, 
VK Sreeraman, Krishnankutty Nair, 
MS Thrippunithara, Kaveri, 
Raasi, Anu Anand, Kiran Vergis
Malayalam films in the 80s were relatively sedate, focusing on strong stories and scripts before banking on star power. There were no 'super stars' then; there were, however, super actors, men and women who looked at the depth of their role rather than its length, and did not seem to mind taking on small, intense cameos in films that were headlined by their so-called rivals. The story was king, and the director, the captain of the ship, if you'll forgive me mixing up my metaphors. This was one such film.  
Valsala (Kaveri) and Lakshmi (Raasi) are sisters who live with their father (MS Thripunithara). Valsala, the older sister, mothers her younger sibling, and affectionately nicknames her ‘Vavachi’. When the film begins, we see the sisters’ childhood, and their affection for each other (the beautiful Kannathumbi poraamo… becomes their theme song).
As the sisters turn to go in, a beggar (VK Sreeraman), Uvachu, comes to the gate asking for water. Valsala runs off to draw some water from the well for the thirsty man, leaving her sister in the yard. 
When she returns, both Uvachu and Lakshmi have disappeared.

The scene shifts to the present, where Murli (Kiran Vergis) and his friends, including arch-rival Punnoose (Anu Anand) are a merry band of students, who run wild in their little village. Their arch nemesis is their Maths teacher, Mathai, whom the boys call ‘Kaalan Mathai’ (‘Kaalan’ is literally ‘Time’; it also stands for the Yama, the Lord of Death.) 
That day, Murli is in trouble – he hasn’t done his homework, and Punnoose throws a spanner into the works when Murli tries to copy from another boy. Punnoose is hoping Murli will get into trouble but unfortunately for him, he’s the one who gets caught. This doesn’t endear Murli to Punnoose. It appears that Murli’s offering of river pebbles at the ‘Kakkothikaavu’ (Kakkothi’s sacred grove) has done wonders. 
Punnoose is furious – he had thrown Murli’s offering away, and listening to the other children debate the Kakkothi’s looks – she’s a beautiful young woman, she’s an aged crone, no, it’s a man –  makes him disclose what he’s done to prove there’s no Kakkothi at all. Suddenly, a disembodied voice originates from the grove, sending the frightened children scuttling away. 

Muthiamma, the old woman in the village allays their fears. The Kakkothi loves children. Who is the Kakkothi? Well, she’s Subhadra, a beautiful young maiden who lived long ago. Her beauty had made her an object of desire of the local squire – the one-legged Chellamballil Elameenan. Subhadra, however, had fallen in love with a travelling musician. Elameenan, jealous of the younger man, had had the musician murdered. Subhadra takes refuge in the grove, which was then considered sacred to Lord Shiva. Desperately fighting for life and honour, she had killed Elameenan there. She’d never left the grove since. If you listened carefully, it was said, you could hear her singing. Kakkothi was largely benevolent, fulfilling wishes if offered enough river pebbles.
The tale appeals to Murli, who is an orphan. His foster parents are abusive but he has nowhere else to go. School becomes slightly bearable when Valsala (Ambika) joins the school as Murli’s new class teacher. Her first interaction with him is 
not auspicious – humiliated by some of the boys, Murli gets into a brawl in the classroom. However, when she realises that Murli has been labelled a troublemaker (thus making him more prone to causing trouble), Valsala’s sympathises are aroused.
Suspended for causing trouble, Murli goes to the kaavu for solace, making another offering of river pebbles, so he won’t have to go back to school. He falls asleep in the grove, and is woken up by the ‘Kakkothi’s’ song. Hesitantly, he enters the grove, only to encounter a strange woman.
Murli hastens away but on his way home, he meets his foster parents. His father yells at him for having brawled at school, and throws his books away. To Murli, it seems like the Kakkothi had made his wish come true.

One day, soon after, tired of the regular beatings, Murli takes shelter in the kaavu. A group of nomads have set up camp there, and Murli meets the young woman he had mistaken for the Kakkothi. Her name is Lakshmi, a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed virago who mistakes Murli for a thief. But her father (Surasu), is a kind-hearted soul, and when he learns that Murli is an orphan, offers him a home with them.
Lakshmi unbends when she hears Murli sing, and play the harmonica. As they become friends, Murli insists on calling her ‘Kakkothi’, much to Lakshmi’s amusement. Soon, Kakkothi and Murli are inseparable – and Murli is happier than he’s ever been.
Back home, Valsala is dejected – she was responsible for Murli abandoning his studies and joining the nomads. Meanwhile, Murli and Kakkothi are running wild, squabbling and making up, falling into scrapes and getting out of them, earning money through fair means and foul.
Valsala, meeting Murli while Kakkothi and he are running away from one such contretemps, 'rescues' him, determined that he will not spoil his future. Murli is touched by her affection and promises to not run away again. Unfortunately for their good intentions, Kakkothi, who meets Murli on his way to school, drags him away with her despite his remonstrations.
But when danger threatens the nomads, Kakkothi is forced to agree to Murli’s decision to ask Valsala for help. This has unexpected consequences for Kakkothi, for Valsala, for Murli… 

Will the legend of the Kakkothikaavu come true after all? 

Written by Fazil (who went on to become a noted director in his own right), and directed by Kamal, another ace director, Kakkothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal (‘Old Man’s Beard’ from the Sacred Grove) is a touching tale that centres around childhood and sibling relationships. Years later, the director referred to it as the movie closest to his heart. 
Revathi had made a fantastic debut in Manvaasanai (Petrichor) in 1983. The same year, she crossed over to her native land to make a smashing debut in Kaattathe Kilikkoodu (A Nest in the Wind). My father dragged me off to watch the film because she was his friend's daughter. That is how I got acquainted with an actress who was remarkably natural in her 'acting' and fit in so well in the films made during the period. By the late 1980s, Revathi was straddling both Tamil and Malayalam film industries with ease. Along with actors like Ambika, Geetha, Parvathi et al, Revathi made a niche for herself, not just as the peppy teenager of her debut, but as an actress of note.

Kakkothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal is sure to invoke nostalgic memories among Malayalis who grew up during a certain era. Like Murli in the film, we ran wild during our summer vacations, the brush scratching our legs, swimming in the pond-that-was-once-a-well in our backyard, keeping an eye out for snakes, cooling our feet in the quick-flowing stream (thodu) behind our house, catching fish in thin, white towels, throwing stones at raw mangoes so we could bit into their tangy whiteness, chasing appooppanthaadis along the bunds that divided the paddy fields – of such innocent pleasures did our childhood abound. That delightful freedom has been beautifully captured on celluloid by Kamal.
However, one doesn’t need to be a Keralite to appreciate this film. Kakkothikkavile… is a tale of lost innocence. Faith, loyalty, friendship – all these find echoes in the relationship between Murli and his Kakkothi, between Murli and Valsala. While the ending is predictable [well, not really for Malayalam films which could (and did), at one time, contrive tragedy from comedy at the drop of a hat], the script is lifted by the simplicity with which the tale is told, and by some top-class acting. 
Whether it is Ambika who’s waiting for her missing sister, and rescues Murli because she hopes someone will have done the same for her Vavachi, or young Kiran who plays Murli with just the right touch of pathos, or Revathy, who won a well-deserved Best Actress award at the Filmfare South Awards for her eponymous role, or even the supporting cast – Sreeraman, Surasu, Philomena – there was not a wrong note anywhere.
Veteran music director Ouseppachhan set Bichu Thirumala’s lyrics to three wonderful melodies – all of which were used not just as place markers, but served to add to the narrative. If today, Kakkothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal claims its place as a classic, it is because Kamal melded all these ingredients into a wonderfully crafted film. Shot on a modest budget (even by Malayalam cinema standards), the film has withstood the test of time, and is as fresh as it was when it was released nearly three decades ago.

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