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Malayalam Movie Double Bills — Mohanlal’s Birthday Edition: Thenmavin Kombath and Pingami

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on May 21, 2020.

In honour of Mohanlal’s 60th birthday, you’ll no doubt be reading many tributes to the Malayalam actor, and poring over lists of his best films (or what each list compiler thinks are his best films, but we all know that “best” is subjective and one person’s “best” can be another person’s least favourite).  I know many, many die-hard Lalettan fans, and each of them has been eager to make sure my education in Malayalam cinema has included some of the films considered classics in his filmography.

But I wanted to do something different – rather than compile Yet Another List of films, I thought I’d take a look at two very different films starring Mohanlal, that released within a couple of weeks of each other, and that had very different fates.  The first, Pingami, written by Raghunath Paleri (based on one of his own short stories), and directed by Sathyan Anthikad, is a dramatic thriller that was released on May 27th, 1994; the second is Thenmavin Kombath, a romantic-comedy written and directed by Priyadarshan, released on May 13th in the same year. 

In Thenmavin Kombath ( (“On the branch of the) Honey Sweet Mango Tree”) Manikyan (Mohanlal) is a cattle farmer who works for Shreekrishnan  (Nedumudi Venu).  Shreekrishnan  (also called Krishnan) treats Manikyan like his own brother, taking on arranging Manikyan’s sister’s marriage, and Manikyan views Shreekrishnan’s older sister, Yeshodhamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) like a mother.  Manikyan and Krishnan regularly go to fairs to buy and sell cattle; their usual routine involves Krishnan drinking a little too much toddy at the fair, and Manikyan looking after him and making sure he stays out of trouble – or, if he doesn’t, Manikyan is at least there to protect him.  After one such trip, they come across a young woman, Karthumbi (Shobhana), with her drunken uncle, who are on their way to perform in a drama.  Krishnan (who has delayed his own marriage) becomes instantly smitten with Karthumbi (and who can blame him, because Shobhana is beautiful and delightful), and offers to give them a ride to where they need to go, since their cart is empty, much to Manikyan’s dismay, since from they moment he met Karthumbi, the two are constantly bickering.

Krishnan, wanting to see Karthumbi perform, insists that they stay at this new fair so that he can find a way to tell her how he feels, and ask her to marry him.  But a fight breaks out when he overhears a fair promoter behaving badly with Karthumbi, and Karthumbi and Manikyan escape in the cart (Manikyan not realizing that Krishnan isn’t with them).  In the confusion, Manikyan goes the wrong way and they end up leaving Kerala and crossing into Karnataka, to a place where everyone speaks Tulu, which leads to more confusion as Manikyan tries to ask for directions and Karthumbi (who speaks the language), uses this as an advantage to tease and torment him, to get back at him for not wanting to give her a ride.  But this results in the two of them spending more time together, and the bickering turns to mutual attraction.  The plan is that the two will pretend to still be annoyed at each other, until Manikyan can gently arrange for them to be married.

What they soon realize when they return to Manikyan’s village is that Krishnan has become obsessed with marrying Karthumbi, to the point that it sours his relationship with Manikyan.  Appakkala (Sreenivasan), another servant who works for Krishnan, is jealous of Manikyan,and takes advantage of this rift by manipulating Krishnan into seeking to destroy Manikyan.  In the end, Appakkala’s deceits are revealed, Krishnan marries the long-suffering Karthu (KPAC Lalitha), and Manikyan is free to marry Karthumbi.

I recently watched a Facebook live question and answer session with actress Shobhana, who described working on Thenmavin Kombath as a joyous experience, and I think that shows, especially in the film’s first half, where there is cracking chemistry between the two leads as they gradually fall in love during their cart journey.  For me, the second half makes me sad, as Krishnan allows his bitterness at feeling betrayed by Manikyan to bring out the worst in his character, and I do think the ending feels a little tacked on, as it arrives so suddenly after we’ve taken this long journey with the film’s extended cast.

I know people who complain about Priyadarshan and his films (even I’ve been known to joke about his “inspirations” for films from time to time), but I do think that the director has a firm sense of how to make a proper masala film, backing it up with a crew who bring the best to the work.  Thenmavin Kombath was the first film where K. V. Anand worked as cinematographer, and he won a National Award for his work on the film – which is gorgeous to look at, despite the terrible quality of any print of this I’ve seen.  Sabu Cyril also won a National Award for his production design, and songwriting duo Berny–Ignatius also won a Kerala State Film Award for their songs, which are charming.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Thenmavin Kombath ended up being the highest grossing film of 1994.

All of this meant, of course, that any film releasing almost at the same time was going to be greatly overshadowed.  I read an interview with Sathyan Anthikad in which he pondered the fate of his film Pingami, which, releasing just weeks after Thenmavin Kombath, did not have the same fate at the box office.  Pingami (The Successor) is the polar opposite of Thenmavin Kombath – a dark thriller, it involved the death of a social worker, Kumaran (Thilakan) and the quest of another man, army officer Captain Vijay Menon (Mohanlal) to uncover the reasons behind his murder – a quest that will reveal that much in the two men’s lives are connected, and the answers to one mystery will give Vijay Menon the opportunity to question his own life and that of his family.  Apparently, Priyadarshan warned Anthikad that releasing such a dark film right on the heels of a light-hearted entertainer might spell trouble, and his prediction turned out to be true.

Pingami_Lal

Which is a huge shame, because I rarely see anyone recommend Pingami when talking about Anthikad’s films – admittedly, it is a very different film in Anthikad’s repertoire, not like what we might think of as an Anthikad film, either his social comedies (like Sandesam or Nadodikkattu) or his family dramas (like Manassinakkare or Jomonte Suvisheshangal).  For me, the mystery surrounding Kumaran’s death is as compelling to me as it is to Vijay Menon, precisely because Anthikkad made an excellent choice of actor to play Kumuran, who we only see briefly at the beginning of the film, just before he is attacked and left for dead.  Thilakan is one of my very favourite actors, and is considered one of the finest actors in Indian cinema, with good reason.  You only have to watch a film like Ustad Hotel to see his charm, and his utter complicity with Dulquer Salmaan (who played his grandson), or a film like Sandesam, where he’s the anchor around which everything turns.  In Pingami, we immediately connect with his Kumaran, we immediately realize that Kumaran is a good soul and a fighter for justice, even to his own peril.  Vijay Menon discovers him, barely alive, and brings him to a hospital, where he dies of his injuries.  When reports on the case don’t add up to the details he knows, Menon uses his leave time from the army to try to find out what really happened to Kumaran, borrowing his diary from his family, and listening to Kumaran’s voice to follow the trail to its end.  In Pingami,  Sathiyan Anthikad gives us a compelling story of the connection between two men who have never met — to reveal more would surely spoil the movie, which is well worth viewing for its story as well as its cast.

Pingami_Thilakan
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