September 7, 2018
Tovino Thomas, Samyuktha Menon, Saiju Kurup, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Surabhi Lakshmi, Shammi Thilakan
Theevandi revolves around a nicotine addict in rural Kerala who seems set to smoke his life away when the central action in the story begins. He is hardly the sort of person you would expect as the protagonist of a mainstream comedy – unless you are a regular viewer of Malayalam cinema, in which case you know of course that the slice-of-life genre, unconventional subjects, unlikely heroes and occasionally, heroines, are now standard practice in this film industry.
Bineesh Damodaran runs through so many cigarette packets in a day, that he has earned the nickname “Theevandi”, literally meaning “train”, the allusion being of course to a burning and/or smoke-producing machine. He’s the kind of guy who might advise a fellow smoker to “tell St Peter at the Golden Gate, that you hate to make him wait, but you just gotta have another cigarette”, as “nicotine slaves” did in the old American country music number Smoke! Smoke!Smoke! (That Cigarette).
Theevandi occupies itself with the question: will our boy ever be free of his dangerous habit, especially now that it is affecting the woman he loves who loves him but hates his stinking smoker’s breath, and his politically ambitious brother-in-law? Bineesh’s family and the entire village are agog with wonder since they have watched him puff his health away from his schooldays.
Theevandi stars the thinking woman’s Romeo, Tovino Thomas, as Bineesh. He is unemployed but occasionally helps in the family’s small business, never allowing his idleness or work to interrupt his romance with cigarettes. Thomas brings heft and unassuming charm to his performance, in a role that is more light-footed than his acclaimed screen outings last year in Mayaanadhi, Godha and Oru Mexican Aparatha.
Newcomer Samyuktha Menon is poised and self-assured while playing his girlfriend. Devi is a government employee who clearly has her act together while Bineesh does not. Thomas and Menon make a sweet couple.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Suraj Venjaramoodu as Devi’s father and Saiju Kurup as Bineesh’s brother-in-law are competent as usual, but Surabhi Lakshmi as their political party’s secretary blatantly over-acts.
The first half of Theevandi is sustained by its comedic vein, the chemistry between the leads, and curiosity about where director Fellini T.P. and writer Vini Viswa Lal could possibly take this theme. The genteel satire here is rudely interrupted though by a woman jokingly threatening to pour acid on her boyfriend’s face – a remark that is treated with stunning casualness in the script – and visuals of her slapping him repeatedly that are used as a supposedly humourous refrain in their relationship. This violent motif mars the picturisation of the lovely song Jeevamshamayi.
Too many Malayalam films are blasé in their portrayal of intimate partner violence inflicted on women by men. Women form a majority of victims in real life too, but that cannot justify nonchalance towards a reverse situation: a woman hitting or threatening a man ain’t cute or funny, Messrs Fellini and Lal. The mindlessness of this aspect of the writing is most glaring in a scene in which Devi slaps Bineesh in the absence of witnesses at her home, but seconds later, when he slaps her back her furious family pours into the room to slam him. This is just the kind of scenario around which MRAs wrap their victimhood – “she got away with it, but look how they condemn the paavam man,” etc.
These interludes are particularly jarring because the rest of Theevandi, whatever its other weaknesses may be, remains doggedly breezy.
Much of the genius of the contemporary middle-of-the-road Malayalam cinema that film buffs across India so admire lies in observant writing, those multiple characters who are memorable even if they get hardly any screen time, the insights into life in smaller communities, and the ability to rib a people for their follies without caricaturing them. There is hope in Theevandi before the interval and especially in that trippy scene in which Bineesh attempts to set a Guinness record with his smoking, but that tone does not last.
And so, while Theevandi is a job well begun, as it saunters along from the interval onwards it appears that the writer does not quite know how to take his concept forward. After a point, Lal seems not to have a clue how to handle Bineesh’s addiction, fails to arrive at an appropriate mix of comedy and gravitas to deal with it, is unable to lend any depth to the many smaller characters surrounding Bineesh and Devi who seemed promising initially, and resorts to clichés and long shots of Bineesh’s community instead of the intimate close-ups that have made the likes of Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Angamaly Diaries so memorable.
A considerable part of the first half of Theevandi is genuinely funny. And the attractive combined presence of the ever-reliable Mr Thomas and young Ms Menon keep the film running even when the writing runs out of steam. In a choice between “good”, “bad”, “ugly” or “okay” to describe this film, I am going with “okay” then.
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
2 hours 24 minutes
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Visuals courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/TheevandiTheMovie/