Written by Padmarajan and directed by Joshiy, this 1990 film is still considered to be among the best thrillers that the Malayalam film industry has produced.

Collage of Mammootty and Nedumudi Venu from Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu
Flix Flix Flashback Wednesday, October 13, 2021 - 16:51

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I must have been only six years old when I watched Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu, one of Malayalam cinema’s first few serial killer films, on TV. My older brother and the rest of the family were glued to the screen, and I refused to go to bed when they were watching something so exciting, even if it was terribly inappropriate for such a young child. I remember the pinpricks of fear as the killer jumped down the compound wall, dressed in black; the goosebumps on my skin as he stuffed coconut fibre into his victims’ mouths. In fact, since the title was so lengthy, we used to refer to the film as ‘chakiri’ (coconut fibre) for the longest time.

Written by Padmarajan and directed by Joshiy, this 1990 film is still considered to be among the best thrillers that the Malayalam film industry has produced. The late Nedumudi Venu played a spiritual man with ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) powers pitted against IPS officer Haridas Damodaran, played by Mammootty. Oru CBI Diary Kurippu had released just two years ago, and Mammootty’s Sethurama Iyer had become the stuff of legend (it remains till date one of his most memorable characters). The film was not only a blockbuster in Kerala but also the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu where it ran for a whole year.

Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu, therefore, opened to high expectations. The film undoubtedly belongs to Mammootty, who plays the chief investigator of the serial murders committed by a cold-blooded killer who targets middle-aged men and stuffs coconut fibre into their mouths postmortem. But Venu’s Warrier, despite the limited screen time, is equally important. Several Indian films with serial killers have turned out to be disappointments because the director pins the crimes down on a strawman killer that the audience meets only towards the end of the film. The ‘big reveal’ is deflated when the audience has not developed any emotional engagement or impression about the character previously.

But in Ee Thanutha, the killer hides in plain sight; in fact, he’s introduced to the audience with a spotlight on his face as he enters the stage. Venu as Warrier exudes a majestic presence. When he snaps at Haridas, a sceptic of ESP, astrology and other ‘super’ powers, he makes the viewer really believe that he is the genuine goods. The two of them meet at an event organised at a women’s club frequented by Haridas’s wife Lakshmi (Sumalatha), a psychology graduate who has a keen interest in the arts that Haridas despises.

Warrier enters the stage shading his eyes against the spotlight and abusing the organisers for shining it on him. But a few seconds into the scene, you realise that it was all part of his act to grab their attention. His spat with Haridas at the event and their subsequent meetings lead one on to think that Warrier will play a crucial role in Haridas unravelling the murders, but little does one suspect that Warrier himself is the killer.

By 1990, Nedumudi Venu, who made his debut in the early ‘70s, had already played a wide variety of roles. He therefore enjoyed the unpredictability of the truly great character artists who could fit into any and every role. The film’s script also throws some convincing red herrings our way, particularly Christie, played by Suresh Gopi. The actor, known for his bombastic roles, plays a disturbed, mentally ill man with sensitivity and restraint in Ee Thanutha. When the whole world is convinced that Christie with his violent streak is the killer, Haridas, the only person who speaks to Christie with some kindness, continues to keep his nose to the ground.

As the case moves in different directions, Haridas comes up with new motives and explanations that will solve the jigsaw puzzle. His wife Lakshmi also helps him along in the investigation, sharing her ideas and even snooping on his behalf at times. Despite some misogynistic language (referring to women as ‘keep’ and ‘charakku’, for instance), the film was surprisingly ahead of its times for the depiction of the husband-wife. Though Lakshmi dresses stylishly, speaks English well and goes to clubs, she isn’t represented as a ‘parishkari’ who is put in place by the disgruntled hero. Her role isn’t limited to the home either and it’s an interesting touch to involve her in the investigation, even if it is as Haridas’s sounding board.

The film comes to a resolution with a flashback that connects the dots, revealing the motive for the murders and the reason for the killer stuffing ‘chakiri’ into the mouths of his victims. This portion is shot in black and white to indicate that it happened in the past but also perhaps to mask the age of the actors who play their younger selves. Venu, who comes across as a cantankerous old man in the present, is a naive college student in the flashback, sharing a warm and innocent romance with Sreedevi (Lakshmi in a cameo).

Though it was made more than 30 years ago, the film still holds up well on a revisit, barring a few loopholes (how did Haridas figure out the Warrier connection and send a disguised policeman to his house way before anything had happened to rouse suspicion, for example?). In 1989, only a year before the release of Ee Thanutha, Venu had played the deranged Kurian Fernadez in the Mohanlal-Priyadarshan film Vandanam. There too, he’s a disturbed man out to kill people, but compare the two films and you’ll see that the performances are distinct in every sense.

Though he appeared in hundreds of films, Venu was always able to make the audience buy into his character. You never knew if he was going to be good, bad, in between or fool you entirely. There are many, many performances of his that are unforgettable, including the old man with a wicked sense of humour that he played in Aanum Pennum, among his last films. His death leaves behind many cinema fans like me whose memories of childhood and growing up are entwined with the films he acted in. That face which could transform within seconds, that dialogue delivery that could make us cry, laugh, shrink with disgust or shiver with fear, that body which could play any age, that personality which could leave a mark despite sharing the scene with superstars — we will truly miss the one and only Nedumudi Venu.

Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu is available on Disney+Hotstar and YouTube.

Also read: Nedumudi Venu, the legend: Revisiting his towering contributions to cinema

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