Cast: Anna Ben, Arjun Ashokan, Nandhu, Suresh Krishna, Zarin Shihab, Fahim Safar, Shiva Hariharan, Krishna Kumar, Balaji
“This must be the first time in history that a fellow eloped with his uncles in tow,” says a man called Chandrahasan Nair in director Achyuth Vinayak’sThrishanku (The Puzzled State). Leaving home with his Chandran Maaman (Nandhu) and Biju Maaman (Suresh Krishna) was not, as it happens, the plan hatched by Sethu (Arjun Ashokan) when he and his long-time love Megha (Anna Ben) decided to run away and get married. What is a chap to do though if his sister Sumi (Zarin Shihab) takes off with her boyfriend on the very morning that he has picked for himself, and he is compelled to join their search party to find her?
Thrishanku is a saga of these dual elopements, the compulsions that drove both couples to flee, the true colours revealed and self-realisation that dawns as Team Maamans goes looking for Sumi while Megha’s father Robin (Krishna Kumar), a retired senior policeman, pursues her. The film is based on a story by the director, with a screenplay and dialogues co-credited to him and Ajith Nair. Their writing moulds Thrishanku into a low-key comedy so unobtrusively commenting on Kerala’s socio-political realities that it could be mistaken for frothy fun.
The light tone helps Thrishanku cover a lot of ground without appearing to do so, taking off from families who stand in the way of marriages between people from different religious communities. Sethu and Sumi are Hindu, Megha and Sumi’s boyfriend Alex (Shiva Hariharan) are Christian. We don’t get to know Alex much, but it is obvious that the others expected their parents to object to the religious identity of their chosen partner. Their fears were justified.
As the narrative progresses, Sethu is called out for the double standards in his reactions to Sumi’s actions and his own, parental tyranny is condemned, superstition is mocked, the hollowness of caste pride is underlined, and one woman gets support, not condescension, when she blunders while another sticks to her guns. All this is done so gently, even playfully, that Thrishanku feels like a pageant of everyday conversations despite the high drama in the plot. Even the characters’ Hindu-ness and Christian-ness is not stressed beyond what is necessary.
This careful calibration ensures that nothing in Thrishanku feels like an issue the filmmaker set out to address as much as an issue that happened to come up organically. There’s even an unexpected scene normalising homosexuality in a tone that Indian cinema rarely adopts when LGBT+ persons are situated in comedies. Without giving away specifics, let’s say what makes the scene work is that when two persons are mistaken for a gay couple, they are accepted, not gaped at, by the person who makes the mistake (which happens more often in the actual world than Indian cinema acknowledges), the confusion is not caused by Dostana-style effeminacy or caricatured conduct, and the individuals in question are oblivious to the confusion because they are clueless about the new realm they have just entered.
This extent of awareness in the script is what makes it so disappointing that Thrishanku features a rape joke uttered by a character otherwise not shown to be a misogynist. Why do some writers think a man appearing concerned for his safety is amusing and merits a “Don’t worry, no one will rape you” sort of quip? It’s a passing remark, but that’s hardly an excuse.
The film is attentive to Megha, Sethu and the Maamans’ characterisation. Some smaller players including Megha’s Laxmanan Uncle (Balaji) too are given a quality or a line to remember them by. Robin, however, remains a one-note character despite his screen time, Megha’s pesky suitor (Fahim Safar) is superfluous, and Sethu’s parents are not even outlined properly. Most important, Thrishanku is only a fraction of what it could have been because Sumi and Alex’s relationship is poorly developed, and he is lazily written. The script is not judgemental towards Sumi nor does it adopt an I-told-you-so stance, but it could have done so much more.
Far more thought has gone into the use of language in Thrishanku. As the plot travels from Kerala to Karnataka, characters swing back and forth between the smorgasbord of tongues you would naturally hear in both states. The film does not attain Thankam/Ariyippu-grade brilliance in this department, but it’s clever and ends up adding to the sense of humour on display.
Over the years, I’ve complained in review after review about mainstream Malayalam cinema using Hindi and English lyrics on occasion without giving enough thought to the relevance of either language to a particular setting, story or characters, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum being the latest example. Thrishanku is a lesson in how to do it right. Manu Manjith, Achyuth Vinayak and Ajith Nair ought to be celebrated for the fitting, endearing mix of languages in this sprightly soundtrack composed by Jay Unnithan and accented without pretensions by each singer.
The song Bhoomiyumilla addresses the meaning of the film’s title. Thrishanku in mythology was deemed unfit for entry into heaven by Lord Indra, resulting in his suspension between swargam and bhoomi, where the sage Vishwamitra built a whole new heaven for him. This film may have opted for the comedy route to spotlight regressive attitudes to relationships, but the title underscores its somber intent. On a mundane level, Thrishanku is about Megha and Sethu’s relationship being in a state of suspended animation while he is on the lookout for Sumi and she is unable to return to her despotic father. More seriously though quietly, the film questions those who lord it over traditional homes and decide who is worthy of admission to the family.
In her brief but impressive career so far, Anna Ben (Kumbalangi Nights, Sara’s) has honed herself into the definitive sassy girl on the cusp of womanhood who is no pushover despite her diminutive appearance. She gives Megha a palpable under-layer of grit. Arjun Ashokan is effective as always as Everyman. Together they pull off Megha and Sethu as sweet young things whose mild demeanour masks a firm commitment to their decisions.
Thrishanku’s best-written characters though are Chandran who is a conservative religionist and casteist, and “Naasthika Biju” who is his own kind of progressive despite his limited exposure. Nandhu and Suresh Krishna are the rockstars of this romantic rigmarole. The two veterans in cracking form are the compelling reason to watch Thrishanku.
Despite a couple of loosely written and edited portions, and a climax that needed more urgency, Thrishanku is an enjoyable ride. It doesn’t tomtom its politics, but in an unassuming fashion endorses a woman’s right to choose even if she messes up her choices, exposes male hypocrisy in a patriarchal society, and defines a male ally as one who may be concerned about the safety of a girl or woman in his family but does not use that concern as a pretext to infantilise and restrict her. It steers clear of the sometimes violent consequences for couples in India who cross prescribed boundaries – a theme perhaps most beautifully handled by the stinging Kismath and Eeda in the past decade – but its point is well made all the same.
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Thrishanku is in theatres in Kerala
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial