There are certain movies which you like when you watch them for the first time, certain movies which grow on you every time you watch them and certain others which always intrigue you and every viewing of the movie only adds to the aura surrounding the movie. Padmarajan’s classic Thoovanathumbikal (1987 – Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain), based on his novel Udakappola, belongs to that rare category of cinema which is immensely intriguing and grows on you each time you watch it – there are probably so many interpretations and explanations to this story and every time you watch it, you discover a new angle to it.
When I first watched Thoovanathumbikal in the mid-90s, it did not make much sense to me and the only thing fascinating to me was Sumalatha and the music of the movie. (My lack of knowledge of Malaylam was also a hindrance, of course). After a few half baked attempts at watching the movie , I finally downloaded and watched it in entirety recently and I must confess, it swept me away. The romance, the complexity of the characters, the aura in Padmarajan’s script and the fabulous music kept me glued to the movie for a long time even after the movie had ended.
Thoovanathumbikal is a complex movie juxtaposing the characters of three strong willed protagonists – Jayakrishnan (Mohan Lal), Clara (Sumalatha) and Radha (Parvathy) – into the background of a small town in Thrissur. It explores the complex web of love, sex and jealousy that binds these three characters, as their lives clash. Jayakrishnan is a young man who lives a double life – one as a big farmer in his village and the other as a quasi-hero in the town, where he has innumerable friends. He falls in love with Radha, only to be chided by her, assuming that he is just another flirt.
Later, through a friend (a character who technically qualifies to be a pimp but manages to evolve into a much more respectable soul in Padmarajan's hands), he meets Clara, a woman who wants to escape from the drudgery of poverty by turning into prostitution. After being spurned by Radha, he finds solace in Clara’s arms and that develops into a fascinating relationship – a relationship which I must confess that has never been fully clear to me. Admired by his sincerity to love (Oru penkuttiyudeyum nashathinte thudakam ennuludi aavarthene enikkoru prarthana undaayirinnu, oru penkuttiydeyum virginity njan kaarnam illathavarthune enikku nirbandham aayirunnu, angane sambhavichal aa penkuuti aavum pinne angootu anthyam vere ente oppom undav njan oru shapatham aduthudayirunnu), she finds it difficult to reject his marriage proposal and so Clara just disappears from his life because, she does not want to spoil his life by becoming his wife as she has already become a sex-worker.
In the meanwhile, Radha learns more about Jayakrishnan and falls in love with him – his small town heroics and dual life serving as a strong attraction. Clara, however, continues to torment his thoughts and he is not able to commit fully to Radha when she decides to reciprocate his love. Eventually, Clara realizes that if their relationship is not terminated, it would destroy all their lives and so she gets married and bids a final adieu to Jayakrishnan’s and Radha’s life.
Jayakrishnan and Clara are unforgettably romantic and have a relationship which is hard to explain and understand. It is a relationship – unethical, unwelcomed by any society and unbelievable to a common audience - which any film maker will think twice before filming. Padmarajan gives it very strong romantic overtones, especially when compared to the other relationship with Radha. The use of rain as a metaphor (explicitly mentioned and felt by the protagonist) creates a natural aura about their relationship and it acts invisibly in the background, driving their relationship. At every important point when they communicate or meet, it rains which slowly dries up as they move away. You know that their relationship carries clouds of uncertainty but it makes you ask for more.
Clara is undoubtedly one of the most interesting characters that I have seen in all these years of cinema. She is strong willed, free spirited and has no qualms in treading the path that she believes is the best one for her. She escapes from the crutches of a useless parental relationship by getting into prostitution and later on gets married to a widower, only to help Jayakrishnan. Now, such a character could typically be a sob story woman, with a strong element of pathos and sympathy underlying her character. However, Padmarajan creates a Clara with whom you develop a sense of bonding, someone without stereotypical negative or depressive shades.
The fact that she’s actually a prostitute is not very explicitly portrayed and for the viewer, she remains a mystery woman. She remains independent till the end, capable of taking decisions fearlessly, without any sense of guilt - Enthayallum nashikkum, enna pinne anthasayittu nashichudde, aasha thirthu nashichudde. I wonder if men like this character because she represents a woman, who does not seek a commitment but is available at all times (ideal situation!!!).
Jayakrishnan and Radha have a Hide-and-Seek relationship which evolves as the film proceeds. She has strong faith in him and is willing to accept the nature of his relationship with Clara, as long as it remains in the past. But the ever lurking presence of Clara creates an element of doubt in their relationship and it requires Clara’s initiative to put that to rest. The film is pretty bold, without drawing any moral judgments on any of the characters and startles us with the independent ideas expressed. It is ironic that a movie 22 years back is so much more progressive than the current stuff being churned out.
While Padmarajan’s script is brilliant and the cast puts in a stellar performance, a special mention must also be given to the excellent music (songs as well as background music). The music has a character of its own and it creates a tension that is present throughout the movie. The performances are truly top-notch; Lal is absolutely brilliant as a confused young man, torn between his love for Clara and Radha while Sumalatha immortalizes the character of Clara. All these attributes come together to make Thoovanathumbikal a movie par excellence, which has withstood the passage of time and still weaves a magic among the viewers of Malayalam cinema.
Malayalam cinema is at cross roads now as it struggles to attract audience to theatres. The brilliance and intellect of the 70s and 80s and early 90s has been substituted by mindless mimicking of Tamil and Hindi cinema. We have never more acutely felt the loss of stalwarts like Padmarajan, Bharathan and Lohithadas than now and as I watch Thoovanathumbikal, the pain is so much more evident.