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05 February 2021

Thoovanathumbikal (1987)

Dragonflies in the Rain
Directed by: Padmarajan
Music: Raveendran
BGM: Johnson
Lyrics: Sreekurmaran Thampi
Mohanlal, Parvathi, Sumalatha,
Babu Nampoothiri, Ashokan,
Sreenath, Sukumari, Sankaradi,
Jagathi Sreekumar, Soman,
Jayalalitha, Sulakshana

When you first meet Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal), there’s nothing to distinguish him from other well-to-do young men in a Kerala village. He lives with his mother and widowed sister, works his paddy fields, and spends his time fighting with a drunk tenant (Jagathi Sreekumar). Essentially good natured, frugal, slightly entitled aristocratic man-of-the-house – in other words, he’s a ‘type’.

It’s a characterisation that quickly dissolves as we see the same man in Thrissur town. He metamorphoses into someone even a close friend like Rishi (Ashokan) can’t recognise. A happy drunk, a generous benefactor, a regular man about town. It is through Thangal (Babu Namboothiri) that Rishi (and the audience) get to know the duality of Jayakrishnan’s character.

When Jayakrishnan makes the acquaintance of Radha (Parvathi), the cousin of an old college mate, her complete indifference to him piques his interest. He decides – without her input – that she’s the girl he’s going to marry. So fixated is he on the idea that he returns to town and proposes to her in front of her friends in college. Not unsurprisingly, she rejects him outright.


A dejected Jayakrishnan returns to his village, vowing to sow his wild oats. Rishi tries to ease the hurt of rejection, but as Jayakrishnan points out, wooing a girl and being rejected is something that usually happens – many times – to young men before they turn 20. Unfortunately for him, his late father had kept him on such short leash that he had never known what it was like to fall in love and nurse a broken heart.

It is surprising then, that it is of Jayakrishnan – a man who knows nothing about women - that Thangal, a pimp, asks a favour. Would Jayakrishnan write a letter to a young girl’s family, pretending to be the Mother Superior of a convent? It’s only to fool the girl’s maternal uncle and get her out of her house. The girl, Clara, he says, has written asking for his help to enter the world’s oldest profession. He also wants Jayakrishnan to be her first client. A reluctant Jayakrishnan agrees.

Clara (Sumalatha) is like no woman Jayakrishnan has ever met. Their first night together is a revelation in other ways as well. Having vowed that he would ‘save himself’ for the woman who would share his life and determined that no woman’s life should be destroyed because of his actions, Jayakrishnan proposes to Clara. The next afternoon, Clara disappears. What’s worse, she makes no attempt to contact Jayakrishnan before or after she leaves.

Meanwhile, Radha is becoming more and more intrigued by Jayakrishnan. Though they clear their misunderstanding when they meet, Jayakrishnan seems disinterested. When Radha probes, he tells her about Clara, and the responsibility he feels for her. 

Though taken aback by the confession, she respects Jayakrishnan’s sincerity. Their relationship progresses with their families’ blessings. Until one day, Jayakrishnan gets a telegram – Clara is back.

Based on director Padmarajan’s novel, Udakkappola, Jayakrishnan was modelled on Padmarajan’s friend from his AIR days. Shot in and around Thrissur, my hometown, Thoovanathumbikal featured scenes shot in my alma mater, as well as the famous Vadakkunnathan Temple in the ‘Round’.

Thoovanathumbikal offers us a glimpse into a certain time in a man’s life. The plot, such as it is, serves the narrative by allowing us to see Jayakrishnan through the prism of those surrounding him. Interestingly, we only see Clara through Jayakrishnan’s gaze.

Clara was an unusual character – enigmatic, mysterious, independent. She feels no need to give a reason for why she choses prostitution. “Did I ask you why you came to my room?” she smiles, when Jayakrishnan persists.  Later, though, she explains – sort of. “Enthaayalum nashikkum. Pinne anthassayi nashichhoode. Aasha theerthu nashichhode?” (“I know I will be ruined. So why can’t I ruin myself in style? Why shouldn’t I fulfil my desires before I’m ruined?”)

Under the circumstances, she pragmatically chooses the best option she sees. There’s a hint of apology in having ‘cheated’ Thangal by leaving, but she owns her choices. When she returns to meet Jayakrishnan, it is because, she says, she’s tired of rooms and yearns to be free. Jayakrishnan points out that she will forget him one day.But I don’t want to forget,” she says. “Ormikkan nammude idayil onnum illa, pakshe marakkathirikkan nammude idayil entho undu.” (“There isn’t anything between us to remember, but there’s something between us that cannot be forgotten.”)

Does she leave because she knows her presence will not let Jayakrishnan move on? Because she loves him or because she doesn’t want to be tied down herself? The film doesn’t answer that question though there’s a hint of regret that she hadn't accepted his proposal earlier. Clara ranks among Sumalatha’s best performances, as she, in her early 20s, was both earthy and ethereal, a woman of substance and a free spirit. The introspective woman who marches to a melody only she can hear became every Malayali male’s personification of the ideal girlfriend.

Radha, the other female character, is on the face of it, the more traditional woman. Yet, Radha is not just a trope – the good woman who falls in love with a bad boy and assumes he will be changed by her deep love for him.

She has agency and uses it. First, to reject Jayakrishnan, and then to admit she is interested in him. Later, learning about Clara, she asks for a promise – Jayakrishnan will not meet Clara again. Even if Clara seeks him out, he will remember his promise; he’s free to break his promise and go meet Clara without letting Radha know, but if she finds out, well, it will be the end of their relationship. (What’s interesting is that she only says the latter bit after he’s promised.)

When Clara returns amidst their wedding preparations, Radha has no qualms in standing up for herself. At one point, she tells her mother, “No one will go to Mannarthodi (Jayakrishnan’s house) to fix the date of the wedding until I give permission. And if they do so against my wishes, I will not be there to marry him on that day.” 

And when matters come to a head, she refuses to marry Jayakrishnan until after he’s met Clara. She wants him to choose to return to her without the restraint of a forced marriage. Yet, her insecurity leads her to follow him to see what he will choose.

Parvathi, then a round-eyed teenager, portrayed a young girl with all her inherent contradictions with restrained ease.

It is the character of Jayakrishnan who suffers between the two women. Jayakrishnan is every Malayali man – at least, he’s written as one. “Every man loves two women,” wrote Khalil Gibran, “the one is a creation of his imagination and the other is not yet born.” Jayakrishnan is that man. He is ‘in love’ with Radha without knowing anything about her. When he proposes, it is clear to Clara, at least, that he isn’t emotionally invested in her. 

His drunkenness, his guilt over her lost virginity, the sting of Radha’s rejection, conspire to make him feel he’s responsible for her. Watch Clara’s expression in that moment. Jayakrishnan’s vulnerability allows her a glimpse into the inner recesses of his mind. In that moment, she sees him as he truly is. Jayakrishnan, however, continues to see Clara, as he has imagined her.

Jayakrishnan is a confusing character, and I’m not very sure I like(d) him very much. Padmarajan explores this duality with sensitivity. In one scene, Jayakrishnan has escorted Rishi up to a room in a seedy lodge – he has asked Thangal to bring a girl for Rishi. In that room, Jayakrishnan is the tipsy, leering man who ogles the young sex worker on display. Yet, as he steps out of the room and closes the door behind him, his shoulders stoop and the leer vanishes exposing a fragile, vulnerable human being. It is to Mohanlal’s credit that he humanised the self-absorbed Jayakrishnan into a man torn apart by his own conflict. (Though the fluctuating Thrissur accent does him no favours.)

There are only two songs – both lovely compositions by Raveendran mashu. As usual in most Malayalam movies, they play in the background. Music is used very effectively to heighten the mood – Johnson’s background score, especially, becomes as important to the narrative as the rain that complements one of the two love stories.

It is the rain that frames Clara, and keeps her alive in Malayali consciousness, three-plus decades after the film’s release. 

Padmarajan gave us three characters whom you could empathise with, even if you didn't always understand their reasons.Clara lives life on her own terms, and has no time for regrets. Pragmatic and true to her own self, she refuses to be defined by what anyone might think of her. Jayakrishnan is honest to a fault; both Clara and Radha know about each other because he tells them. He's bound by a promise to Radha, but deems his unspoken promise to Clara of greater importance. He's willing to face the consequences of his actions, but his principles drive his actions, however misguided they may seem. Radha is both understanding and jealous; she will let Jayakrishnan make his choice, while hoping for a definite outcome. 

Thoovanathumbikal was not a box-office success when it released the theme was considered 'too adult' for family audiences. But if, over the years, the film has attained a cult status among Malayalis, it is because Jayakrishnan, Radha, and above all, Clara, have earned a unique place in the annals of Malayalam cinema.

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