Drishyam to Kaanekkaane: Looking at five domestic thrillers in Malayalam

These Malayalam domestic thrillers revolve around uncomfortable and horrifying family secrets, and the focus is not so much on the investigation but on how this affects them psychologically.
Tovino Thomas and Suraj Venjaramoodu sitting next to each other in the front seats of a car in Kaanekkaane
Tovino Thomas and Suraj Venjaramoodu sitting next to each other in the front seats of a car in Kaanekkaane
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The recent Malayalam thriller Kaanekkaane is about a man who has an extramarital affair and makes a morally and ethically wrong choice due to a momentary lapse in judgement. The film is an exploration of guilt and mercy, with the former serving as the punishment for the perpetrator and the latter becoming a path to closure and liberation for those most affected by the crime. The film, directed by Manu Ashokan and released on SonyLIV, has led to interesting debates about crime and punishment. Especially because the perpetrator, in this case, has no mitigating factors that make us take a more kindly view of his actions. The film joins the relatively short list of domestic thrillers in Malayalam where uncomfortable and horrifying family secrets tumble out of the closet, and the focus is not so much on the investigation (like in Oru CBI Diary Kurippu) but on how this affects them psychologically.

In Kaanekkaane, Allen (Tovino Thomas) not only cheats on his devoted wife Sherin (Shruti Ramachandran), he's also unfair to the 'other woman' Sneha (Aishwarya Lekshmi), leading her on without confronting the issue. When he finds Sherin lying on the roadside after she meets with an accident, he decides it's the best-case scenario and does not take her to the hospital. By the time he changes his mind, it's too late.

It's much more difficult to empathise with Allen in this domestic thriller than say with George Kutty (Mohanlal) of Drishyam, who covers up the inadvertent murder of a young man who intended to sexually assault his wife and daughter. Allen and George Kutty, in fact, are polar opposites. George Kutty's world is his family while Allen, despite having a wonderful wife and child, decides it isn't enough for him. While George Kutty protects his family from an outsider, Allen leaves his wife to her death, becoming the enemy himself. The film also does not take the easy way out by conveniently stereotyping Sherin as a nagging wife or depicting her in a negative light in any way. It shows her as an understanding and loving partner to Allen, which makes his two-time betrayal harder to stomach for the viewer.

The Drishyam (2013 and 2021) cinematic universe has strong emotional appeal for an audience that lives in a society where family ties are considered to be sacrosanct. Kaanekkaane, on the other hand, demands that we extend the same empathy to a man who ruptures the institution, without hating 'the other woman' too. In both films, however, the crime becomes the punishment for the characters as they find it difficult to come to terms with what they have done.

George Kutty and family in Drishyam

In Aarkkariyam (2021), a domestic thriller directed by Sanu John Varghese that was made and released during the pandemic, Itty (Biju Menon) kills his son-in-law, Augustine, who is a despicable husband to his daughter, Sherly (Parvathy). He does not experience any guilt for his actions because he believes his daughter would have suffered otherwise. Sherly is unaware of what her father has done, or so we're led to believe. But it is Sherly's second husband, Roy (Sharaf U Dheen), who is racked with guilt because he's able to see that there were facets to the dead man that made him dear to some others. Roy helps Itty shift the body from his property because they're about to sell it for pressing financial reasons. Later, it is revealed that Sherly had deliberately identified another body as her husband's because she wanted closure for Augustine's disappearance. Did she really not know what her father had done? The film leaves room for the viewer to speculate, but even so, there is enough reason to justify Itty's actions and Sherly's decision.

Itty and Roy in Aarkkariyam

Joji (2021), directed by Dileesh Pothan and based loosely on Macbeth, shifts a conspiracy to dethrone a king to the setting of a domestic thriller. The youngest son (Fahadh) of a rich household, murders the patriarch who rules over them with an iron fist. He is subtly egged on and aided in this conspiracy by his sister-in-law Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad). Kuttappan, Joji's father, is shown as a cruel, violent man and the audience is drawn into aligning with Joji when he decides to take matters into his own hands and put an end to his reign. Bincy, who is based on Lady Macbeth, also gets an empathetic portrayal; she is taken for granted by the men in the household, and Kuttappan controls them to an extent that he's made it difficult for her to continue with her fertility treatment. In this clearly dysfunctional family, neither Joji nor Bincy feel guilty about Kuttappan's death. It's only when Joji goes a step ahead and kills one of his older brothers, who suspects him, that we wake up to the evil that resides within him. Bincy, too, distances herself from Joji when she realises that he has gone too far.

Joji and Bincy in Joji

Anveshanam (2020), Prasobh Vijayan's disturbing film, is about a child who is admitted to a hospital after a fall. But a duty nurse suspects that he was physically abused, and secretly informs the police, unleashing a series of events. While it is the mother (Shruti Ramachandran) who's responsible for the child's death, the father (Jayasurya) helps her cover it up. However, the film chickens out of laying the blame squarely where it belongs, adding an unnecessary twist about medical negligence and offering an escape route for the parents. The police, too, reach the conclusion that the crime is punishment enough for the parents, who have another child to take care of.

Aravind and Kavitha in Anveshanam

Kaanekkaane, till its final act, is wonderfully structured, making the viewer play a guessing game about what really happened that fateful night and who is lying about what. We see the conflict from the point of view of all the major characters, but empathise the most with Paul Mathai (a terrific Suraj Venjaramoodu), a grieving father who suspects foul play in his daughter's death. When Paul finds himself in Allen's place later in the film, in a position to ignore the pleas for help from someone whose presence is a nuisance for him, he too hesitates for a few moments. The discomfort and guilt he feels are transferred to the viewer, and the act of forgiveness that he performs, therefore, ought to have come as catharsis for us too. But the film, on firm ground until this point, develops cold feet and makes the concluding sequence unnecessarily sappy, forcing a happy ending on everyone. It must, however, be applauded for never trying to justify Allen's actions - either through the victim's characterisation or other circumstances.

Allen and Sherin in Kaanekkaane

Domestic thrillers, when done well, tell riveting stories about ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances that push them to make uncomfortable choices. It is this quality that makes such films irresistible to those who love delving into the psychology behind a crime. The recent spurt in this genre can possibly be explained by the pandemic forcing filmmakers to come up with interesting stories that revolve around a few characters and minimal locations, but one hopes that the trend is here to stay.

Watch: Trailer of Kaanekkaane

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