Monday, June 24, 2019


Release date:
Kerala: June 5, 2019
Delhi: June 21, 2019
Ashraf Hamza 

Vinay Forrt, Divyaprabha, Grace Antony, Chinnu Chandni, Navas, Arun Kurian

In one of the earliest seasons of the iconic American TV sitcom Friends, Chandler Bing’s gang learns that he has a third nipple. Many episodes later, Chandler hesitates to date a woman with a wooden leg but overcomes his mindblock only to find himself rejected by her when she feels grossed out on discovering what he calls his “nubbin”.

The boisterous comedy of Friends is a world away from the sublimeness of Thamaasha, but that episode in Chandler’s life came to mind with good reason as I watched Sreenivasan Masha’s first meeting with Chinnu in this new Malayalam film. Sreenivasan is a soft-spoken college professor with a complex about his premature baldness, Chinnu is a supremely confident youngster who is aware of people’s attitude to overweight women but does not allow anyone to eclipse her sunshine smile. He knows what it is to face prejudice, yet while speaking with her on the phone at a point when she is a stranger to him, he unwittingly reveals his own bias (Minor spoiler ahead) when she guides him to the spot where she is waiting for their rendezvous, and he replies: “But I see only a fat girl standing there.” Sreenivasan crumbles with embarrassment on realising that the woman on the other end of the line is the very woman he just casually labelled, when she replies quietly: “That’s me.” (Spoiler alert ends)

Thamaasha does not let anyone off the hook easily, it does not paint its sweetly likeable hero as a victim without blemishes, and it feels incredibly real. Debutant director Ashraf Hamza’s film stars Vinay Forrt as Sreenivasan Masha (teacher), a socially awkward, shy Malayalam prof who is anxious to be married but cannot find a woman who will accept him, baldness and all. On the advice of his friend Raheem (played by Navas), he decides to seek out a bride among the women he meets professionally and socially.  Meanwhile, his family’s efforts to find a match for him continue. His stumbling attempts to get a wife lead to amusing encounters with Gayathri Teacher (Divyaprabha), Safiya (Grace Antony) and Chinnu (Chinnu Chandni).

Jointly produced by Malayalam cinema stalwarts Sameer Thahir, Shyju Khalid, Lijo Jose Pellissery and Chemban Vinod Jose, Thamaasha is the antithesis of the sort of commercial Indian cinema that is packed with crass wisecracks about obesity, shortness, baldness, skin colour and other cutting personal remarks. This film is about people who are the targets of such cruel comedy on screen and in real life.

Thamaasha is reportedly a remake of the 2017 Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe directed by Raj B. Shetty. It is a tribute to the original, which got excellent reviews when it was released, that the Malayalam adaptation is heartwarming, funny, intelligent and unusual.

That Thamaasha has a point to make is evident right from the start, but far from being a lecture, it is a pleasant slice of life in contemporary Kerala and a character study of Sreenivasan and Chinnu, offering moments of great humour along with its valuable lessons. 

Sameer Thahir’s camerawork is as thoughtful as the overall tone of the film and as unassuming as the leading man. The quality of cinematography in Malayalam cinema as a whole is top notch and a constant aching reminder of the magnificence of God’s Own Country for those of us who live elsewhere. Instead of sweeping panoramic views and high aerial shots that bring out the luxuriant greens, blues and reds of the natural landscape, Thahir opts for comparative smallness of scale and less familiar sights, managing to showcase the attractiveness of Sreenivasan Masha’s surroundings even while retaining the film’s intimate feel.

Hamza’s writing of the protagonist and Chinnu are impeccable, and the two actors live their characters as if this is who they have always been.

FTII graduate Vinay Forrt’s most high-profile performance till date was as Malar Miss’s suitor Vimal Sir in Alphonse Puthren’s 2015 blockbuster Premam. In the tiniest of parts in this month’s megaproject Unda, he managed to make a mark. There is another role that does not get talked about as much in the media, but I thoroughly enjoyed his turn as a hot-headed policeman in Shanavas K. Bavakutty’s Kismath (2016). Every iota of acting excellence he has achieved so far recedes into the background in the face of his utter genius as Sreenivasan Masha.

The Everymanness of Sreenivasan, the Malayaliness of him, the diffidence, the clean heart, the traditionalism that exists contiguous to his modern thinking in some matters, the manner in which he metamorphoses into a passionate being when discussing a literary text in the classroom – it is impossible to place a finger on exactly what he does to embody each of these aspects of his character, because he does it with a subtlety that should make its way to cinema studies texts.

The find of Thamaasha is pretty newcomer Chinnu Chandni who has played satellite roles in other films but is pushed to the foreground – deservedly so – with this one. Bless you, Ashraf Hamza for envisioning her screen namesake as a bright, self-assured, positive woman, yet not turning her into the manically energetic but hollow, bubbly cliché of a heroine seen ad nauseam in commercial Indian cinema. The actor gives Chinnu depth and maturity without diluting her cheery personality in any way.

The cast member who is let down by the screenplay is Divyaprabha playing Sreenivasan’s colleague Gayathri. She is good to the extent that she is allowed to be by the writing of the only character that is given such short shrift by Hamza’s imagination. (Minor spoiler ahead) There is a moment in the film where Sreenivasan drops her like a hot brick for reasons I will not go into. While his hesitation to continue his association with her is in keeping with who he is, the film’s complete disinterest in her thereafter is disappointing. It is as though she is irrelevant once she is off the male protagonist’s radar, never mind her own emotions and opinions on the situation. That she is not entirely unaffected by his behaviour is implied by a fleeting expression on her face when he later mistakenly plays a voice message from another woman while she is within earshot. (Spoiler alert ends)

This passage in an otherwise charming film is a sad pointer to the unfortunate truth that although Malayalam’s ongoing parallel cinema movement does offer women many strong roles in contrast with the marginalisation of women in mainstream megastar-driven projects, this movement too predominantly tells stories of men from a male point of view and equality of representation is yet to be achieved even in this relatively enlightened space.

Among the rest of the supporting cast, Grace Antony is spot-on as the object of a mighty misunderstanding in Sreenivasan Masha’s muddled head. Once the confusion surrounding her is sorted out, if you rewind her performance you will see how accurate she was in every frame.

Navas is a firecracker as the hero’s best friend. I felt slightly uncomfortable though with the scene in which his character introduces his wife to Sreenivasan. The equivalence being implied there between her, Chinnu and Sreenivasan is the only point of overstatement in the film. Hey, we got it already. Why underline it with a thick red pen?

Arun Kurian’s brooding intensity works well for his role as Sreenivasan’s good-looking younger brother.

The reason why Thamaasha works so well is because its messaging is couched in amusing, endearing, relatable realism. There are several lines and moments that linger long after the last credit has rolled off the screen, but my favourite of the lot comes from Raheem who turns an old stereotypical notion on its head when he suggests that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach with these words, “If served nicely, there are only two things no one can turn down, Mashe – affection/love and food.” In a week when a Hindi film has resurrected one of the most repugnant stalker lovers Telugu cinema has ever created, this is such a gentle, refreshingly non-aggressive statement by which to remember this genteel sample of Malayalam cinema.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
120 minutes

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