Thursday, January 16, 2020


Release date:
Kerala: December 20, 2019
Delhi: December 27, 2019
Rajesh Mohanan

Jayasurya, Swathi Reddy, Mallika Sukumaran, Vijay Babu, Sudev Nair, Manikuttan, Sreejith Ravi, T.G. Ravi

A discussion on Thrissur Pooram is not possible without referring to other Malayalam films of this genre that were released in 2019: the Tovino Thomas starrer Kalki, Mikhael with Nivin Pauly and Under World starring Asif Ali. Thrissur Pooram is more Under World than the other two in the sense of how generic and boring it is. In terms of violence, its brutality is closer to Kalki than the rest although the bloodletting in this new film is not as unrelenting as it was in that one. And unlike Kalki, Thrissur Pooram is not viscerally misogynistic – it simply relegates women to the sidelines.

Director Rajesh Mohanan’s film places the spotlight on an aspect of Thrissur far removed from the temple festival the city is known for. In fact, at its core, sadly enough, lies a rather nice message that is completely lost: that once you enter the world of crime, you may choose to leave that life but that life is unlikely to leave you. Equally sadly, one of contemporary Malayalam cinema’s finest, most versatile actors has lent his name to Thrissur Pooram. Is it a measure of the limited choices available to him that just a year after his soul-searching performances in Njan Marykutty and Captain, Jayasurya has opted to under-act in this tedious, sometimes nauseatingly bloody enterprise?

The story of Thrissur Pooram is hard to recall because there is so little of it. Once you wade past the deafening background score, the posing around, the slow motion shots and the overall over-indulgence, what you get is a cycle of violence unleashed by a single incident at a coffee shop.

Gangster Pullu Giri (Jayasurya) has given up crime and has confined himself to mundane domesticity with his wife (Swathi Reddy) and daughter when circumstances not of his making destroy his peace. One spark sets off a full-blown inferno, and the result is an all-out war between his until-now-virtually-defunct gang and another. Giri has always had the unflinching support of a respected senior lawyer played by Mallika Sukumaran. Hovering in the background is an old roadside tea stall owner (Indrans) whose son was once mowed down by an unidentified luxury car.

Not one of these men and women is built up as a flesh and blood creature with thoughts and feelings. Ratheesh Vega’s screenplay feels like a patchwork quilt of post-it notes bearing basic descriptors such as “Jayasuryachettan’s character, known as Giriyettan to everyone”, “Giriyettan’s lawyer played by Mallika Ma’am”, “Giriyettan’s wife played by whoever we can get” and so on. Giri’s entire relationship with the latter is recounted through one song featuring the two of them with a couple of lines of conversation thrown in – that most clichéd of devices used by commercial Indian filmmakers who want to give their action heroes a woman to fall in love with and possibly protect, but don’t want to waste time on her characterisation.

The writing of the rival gang is even more skeletal. Of Giri’s enemies, only one is identifiable and distinguishable from the rest: a young criminal played by Sudev Nair whose greatest fear is not being killed but being deemed incompetent by his elder brother, the gang’s kingpin. Now there is an interesting chap, there is someone with whom the storyline could have gone somewhere, but nothing happens. Him apart, the rest are just blurry blobs who I am already struggling to recall.

The camerawork in Thrissur Pooram is pathetic. Poorly constructed frames are set up to magnify personalities but fail miserably not just because heroes captured in repeated low-angle shots and groups of people turning corners in slow motion are done to death, but because DoP R.D. Rajasekar cannot even get his angles right. In one scene, as a man gazes down from an under-construction high-rise building at a body on the ground way below, far from seeming gigantic or intimidating, he looks comical and oddly stunted.

Just as I was consoling myself with the thought that at least the depiction of violence here is not as voyeuristic and horrifying as in Kalki, there comes a murder in Thrissur Pooram that will remain forever embedded in my mind. In a scene towards the end, a man drives a knife into another’s abdomen and the camera actually zooms in on the wound as blood gradually spreads across the victim’s shirt and the killer keeps rotating the weapon to destroy the dying man’s insides.

The cast does full justice to this vacuous script by delivering vacuous performances. Jayasurya gives himself a choice between precisely two expressions throughout: deadpan or mild grimace. Ms Sukumaran looks suitably grim. Ms Reddy looks nothing. Even Indrans, who has in the past extracted a moment or two of quality from the worst of scripts, over-acts in a couple of scenes.

2019 has largely been a great year for the Malayalam film industry a.k.a. Mollywood. Every few months though, just as we are celebrating the lyricism of a Kumbalangi Nights, the poignance of an Uyare or the audaciousness of a Jallikattu, along comes a Thrissur Pooram to remind us of how bad bad can be. The tragedy is that the year has seen even worse.

Rating (out of 5 stars): 0.75

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
156 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020



2019 has been the worst year of an already problematic decade for Bollywood, the Mumbai-based (primarily) Hindi film industry that gets a disproportionate amount of attention from the so-called ‘national’ media in comparison with India’s other film industries. Islamophobia and pro-establishment messaging were the dominant trends in Bollywood this year, while quality and depth took long vacations from theatres. So few films left a lasting impact, that instead of compiling my usual annual list of best 10, this time I have stopped at nine. 

(Note: This year I have kept this list to theatrical releases, although next year I will in all likelihood expand it to cover direct-to-online releases too.) 

Here is my pick of the saving graces in this annus horribilis.


1: Article 15

Unlike India’s other film industries, Bollywood in recent decades has largely ignored the very existence of the caste system. The most powerful Hindi film of 2019 though put caste at the front and centre of its storyline. In Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, Ayushmann Khurrana plays a Brahmin policeman who is schooled in this oppressive social practice when two Dalit girls are raped and murdered in a UP village where he is posted. Among a bouquet of beautifully written, beautifully acted characters, the ones whose journey ought to spawn a sequel, prequel or both are the Dalit activists Gaura and Nishad, played by Sayani Gupta and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. 

Article 15 combines great courage with great storytelling. I choke up even now at the thought of Vande Mataram woven into the narrative in a soul-stirring scene that vehemently reclaims it from today’s aggressive nationalists who have weaponised patriotism and patriotic songs. 

(For the full review of Article 15, click here)

2: Gully Boy 

A marginalised genre of the arts meets a poor man from a marginalised community in Zoya Akhtar’s stunning Gully Boy inspired by the lives of Mumbai rappers Naezy and Divine. In spite of rap’s massive popularity, many traditionalists still do not acknowledge it as literature or music. Akhtar snubs them through the medium of a Muslim driver from a Mumbai slum who dreams of being a rapper. Ranveer Singh is flawless as the shy youngster whose seething resentment towards those who seek to invisibilise him erupts in his rebellious writing. Alia Bhatt is superb as his  girlfriend who is fighting massive battles with patriarchy. The top-notch cast also includes one of the big discoveries of this year: young Siddhanth Chaturvedi. 

Gully Boy is technically slick, unapologetic about its politics and brimful of brilliant poetry. One of the joys to be derived from it comes from watching the hero’s creative process, from actually watching his songs take birth on screen. In its own unique way then, it is a procedural. At a time when most of Bollywood is bowing and scraping before the present government, it takes a special person to feature Jingostan beatbox in a mainstream commercial film. And Apna time aayega (Our time will come) is an anthem for every human being who has known what it is to be discriminated against, sidelined or ignored by a dominant social group. Gully Boy is gut-wrenching cinema from a gutsy filmmaker.  

(For the full review of Gully Boy, click here)

3: Mardaani 2

Rani Mukerji returned this year as the genius cop Shivani Shivaji Roy from 2014’s Mardaani who wastes no time on hollow politeness and bruised egos. The off-putting title notwithstanding, writer-director Gopi Puthran’s Mardaani 2 is a sharp, incisive critique of how patriarchy reacts when it encounters a questioning woman. Mukerji’s immersive performance in this suspenseful thriller makes for a potent combination with the antagonist played by TV’s Vishal Jethwa who gives us one of the eeriest, creepiest, most convincing villains seen on the Hindi screen in a long while. For a change, a genuinely feminist film from Bollywood, not a film pretending to be feminist while camouflaging a conservative core.  

(For the full review of Mardaani 2, click here)

4: Sonchiriya 

Banditry in the Hindi heartland is resurrected on the big screen in one of the most underrated, under-marketed and therefore, sadly, under-seen films of the year. Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya stars a spectacular cast – Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashutosh Rana among them – inhabiting a story of outlaws traversing a dusty north Indian hinterland. These are not the conventional daakus (dacoits) commonly seen in an earlier Bollywood. They are not fearsome and lionised, but instead tired of this off-the-grid existence. And baaghi (rebel) is the label they prefer for themselves.

Sonchiriya’s stark messaging is enhanced by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s austere cinematography. The film has the courage to speak truths that even most liberals avoid: such as the fact that women are subordinated across all castes including by the most exploited. It also reminds us of a reality that too many men fail to see while they enjoy the powers most societies bestow on them: the reality that while patriarchy marginalises all women, it also extracts a heavy price from men. 

(For the full review of Sonchiriya, click here)

5: The Sky Is Pink 

Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar show remarkable restraint playing parents of a child born with a potentially fatal disorder in Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink. Despite being a saga of death foretold, the film is about hope as much as it is about despair, the value of every second we have on earth as much as it is about our inevitable ends. Grief and positivity are life-long partners in this poignant account of a couple whose relationship survives every loving parent’s worst nightmare.

(For the full review of The Sky Is Pink, click here)

6: Saand Ki Aankh 

Two women in rural north India happen to pick up guns for the first time in their 60s and end up becoming successful competitive sharpshooters. It is surprising that Bollywood took so long to chronicle the real-life story of UP’s now-octogenarian Shooter Daadis, Chandro and Prakashi Tomar, but when it finally did, the result was Tushar Hiranandani’s entertaining, uplifting, socially insightful film.

Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu are in top form as Saand Ki Aankh’s leading ladies, and Viineet Kumar is sensational as their supportive coach. The film has drawn considerable flak for casting young female stars as the elderly leads, but even this starting-point flaw does not mar its heartening celebration of feminine fortitude. 

(For the full review of Saand Ki Aankh, click here)

7: Nakkash 

A Muslim artisan practising his craft in a temple in one of Hinduism’s holiest cities is the fulcrum of Zaigham Imam’s Nakkash. Inaamulhaq plays Allah Miyan who becomes an object of conservative Hindu wrath in Varanasi when his steadfast patron, the temple chief priest (Kumud Kumar Mishra), refuses to be influenced by bigots. Islamophobia is so rampant in today’s world that many well-meaning liberals now steer clear of addressing Muslim fundamentalism in their works. Imam, thankfully, has no such qualms. The director is as unsparing in his take on how Allah Miyan is ostracised by his fellow Muslims as he is in his indictment of fundamentalists from the majority community. Nakkash is a moving saga of love and hate, innocence and venom residing side by side in a communally charged universe. 

(For the full review of Nakkash, click here)

8: No Fathers In Kashmir 

The spotlight falls on half widows, missing men, sexually exploited women and conservatives with double standards in Ashvin Kumar’s No Fathers In Kashmir. It should surprise no one that this film came to theatres after a long battle with the Central Board of Film Certification which initially – unfairly – awarded it an A (Adults only) rating. Contrary to the current popular discourse that demonises Muslims, or for that matter an earlier Bollywood era that tended to paint the entire community with a positive brush, this film sees Kashmiri Muslims as regular people – good and bad, evil and virtuous, and all uniformly troubled.

Despite the harshness of the reality it examines, a tenderness pervades No Fathers In Kashmir because of its decision to explore the state through the wanderings of two artless children. Their charming sweetness ends up further underlining the bitterness and hopelessness that have beset care-worn Kashmir. 

(For the full review of No Fathers In Kashmir, click here)

9: Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga

Of the very few Hindi films made on LGBT+ persons, most have chosen to focus on men. In that sense, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga this year breaks new ground by relating the story of two women in love. It goes many steps further by staying doggedly mainstream in its format and upbeat in its tone, busting prevailing stereotypes by casting a glamorous mainstream star as the lesbian heroine, and treating her neither as a source of comedy nor tragedy. Sonam Kapoor Ahuja plays Ek Ladki’s Sweety Chaudhary, while Anil Kapoor plays her father, a man whose heart lies in a profession considered unsuitable for men. Through his presence in the plot along with characters played by Juhi Chawla and Rajkummar Rao, the film stretches its discussion beyond gender in romantic relationships and extends it to the suffocating nature of all forms of gender stereotyping, prejudice and straitjacketing.  

The title harking back to the most iconic song of Kapoor Senior’s career, is among the many factors that makes Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga one of 2019’s most heartwarming films. 

(For the full review of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, click here)

Related links:


Photographs courtesy:

The Sky Is Pink  poster: Creeshul Media

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga poster: