Padmarajan's 'Thoovanathumbikal': Sensuality, guilt and a vulnerable hero

Though 'Thoovanathumbikal', based on Padmarajan’s novel 'Udakappola', didn’t find success during the time of its release, today it is considered a classic romance among millennials.
Padmarajan's 'Thoovanathumbikal': Sensuality, guilt and a vulnerable hero
Padmarajan's 'Thoovanathumbikal': Sensuality, guilt and a vulnerable hero
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Jayakrishnan angrily shakes a coconut, tosses it to the ground, and snarls at the trader for discarding it. He is wearing a grubby mundu and shirt, with a towel dangling on his shoulder. Their conversation is interrupted by the neighbour who throws abuses at his despotic father to which Jayakrishnan takes offence. In the backdrop stands a large oblong bungalow with a wide front yard, an archetypal Nair tharavadu in Central Kerala—the Mannarthodi house which houses Padmarajan’s most-feted hero. It's an odd introduction for someone who is soon to be pulled into a convoluted relationship with two women. But in a way, it underlines the paradox that is Jayakrishnan.

Though Thoovanathumbikal, based on Padmarajan’s novel Udakappola, didn’t find success during the time of its release, today it is considered a classic romance among millennials. Or was it more a coming-of-age tale? In Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal), writer-director Padmarajan creates his most flawed, uncivilised, vulnerable, and confused hero. At home in his little village, Jayakrishnan comes across as a foul-mouthed, rich feudal brat (we are given hints of a controlling father). A sort of harbinger of some of the feudal alpha males created by Ranjith a decade later. Jayakrishnan is the template that was later caricatured by Ranjith. This is evident in how Padmarajan creates a duality in Jayakrishnan to consolidate his position as a hero.

In the city, the villager Jayakrishnan frequents a bar and has a horde of influential friends. There is this dubious friendship with a pimp, Thangal (Babu Namboothiri), who helps in soliciting women for Jayakrishnan’s friends. It’s through Thangal that the “Jayakrishnan folklore” unravels, and the “he is not who he seems” narrative takes shape. Thangal, who has a fatherly affection for Jayakrishnan talks about a man-child who boasts about his sexual prowess but suspects that he is still a virgin. He talks about a man who painted the town red, his raucous college life, squandering his father’s wealth, and how “influential” he continues to be. He apparently gets free service in hotels, bars, and taxis and can always be trusted with money.

Though Mohanlal goes off-key when it comes to the Thrissur slang, he gets the character pitch-perfect. It’s when women enter the narrative that Jayakrishnan’s character starts to progress. That he is uneasy around women is clear in his reaction to Radha (Parvathy) when they first meet. Not only is Jayakrishnan’s double-entendre dialogues towards her cousin met with distaste by a furious Radha, but she also calls him out for his vulgar show of familiarity with her. Not surprisingly Jayakrishnan is drawn towards her inaccessibility. And being a product of toxic masculinity, he decides for both of them that he should marry her. When she rejects him, he is devastated and nastily tries to cover it up by humiliating her in front of her college friends.

Clara, rain, and guilt

For the collective Malayali male population, Clara (Sumalatha) is a mooned fantasy, the beautiful ‘hooker’ who appears and disappears from Jayakrishnan’s life according to his convenience. Padmarajan sets her up with rose-tinted glasses and adds rain and a trippy melody as metaphors. Clara with her almond, misty eyes, and daintily curved lips, sweeps into the frames with an alluring sense of mystery. That Clara breaks all the formulaic celluloid sex worker imageries manifested in Malayalam cinema till then might be what lures us towards her. She is refined, soft-spoken, and never projects herself as a victim.

It is Clara who approaches Thangal to get inducted into sex work as she was looking for a “way out from her present life.” There is even a moment where Clara expresses hesitancy to meet Thangal as she feels she betrayed him by running away. Just one of the instances which shows her integrity and honesty. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor than Sumalatha embodying Clara in all her mystery and charm.

Ironically, Jayakrishnan has been invited by Thangal to “tame her.” The same Jayakrishnan who is waiting for the right woman to break his celibacy has been given the task to seduce Clara. Strangely in that space, Jayakrishnan comes across as unworldly to Clara’s serenity. It’s this coating of delicious mystery that perhaps breaks Jayakrishnan’s defences. He is also still smarting from Radha’s rejection. Considering Jayakrishnan’s stifling, patriarchal notions about the opposite gender (though he finds nothing wrong in soliciting women for his friends), his guilt over usurping Clara’s virginity is logical. Clara is dead calm about the whole thing. She is also wise enough to know that the marriage proposal comes out of his guilt rather than love.

The pouring rain is as much a powerful metaphor as Johnson’s mellifluous background score in the film. A wall of rain is evocative of Clara’s arrival and symbolises Jayakrishnan’s chaotic state of mind. It’s also the perfect setting for their clandestine meetings imbued with guilt and thrill. They are more the ‘friends with benefits’ couple than a poetically romantic pair. It’s the allegories that add that veneer of erotic romance. The staging of Clara is so sublimely romanticised that at times one gets the feeling that she is perhaps Jayakrishnan’s unattainable fantasy, which helped him get over his disillusionment with Radha. Look at how surreptitiously her entry and exit are timed in the narrative. When he gets back to his elements after Clara’s first departure, Radha is ripe enough to fall in love with him. And Radha typically falls for his “bad boy” imagery. (Again a template reclaimed and glorified by Ranjith in his films). But wasn’t that on display earlier? Or maybe she thought he was just an uncouth villager, not this exciting man from the “netherworld.”

There is a unique compatibility between Clara and Jayakrishnan. She seems to be the alter ego who helped him find himself or shed his reserves. That’s why they are able to pick up from where they left off. Every time. Even when he describes Clara to Radha, he paints a picture of a charming adventurer whom he secretly admires. More than the guilt, maybe the fact that it’s a relationship without conditions is enough stimulation to retain it, despite having Radha back in his life. While Clara reemerges as a strong, confident woman who casually remarks about the claustrophobic spaces and exploitative nature of her job, Jayakrishnan seems to be standing where she left him. Though there is friendship and respect in that no-strings-attached relationship, at one point we get the feeling that Clara falls in love with Jayakrishnan. Eventually, it’s about two people who are in it for different reasons and are aware that they can never be together.

While Jayakrishnan is torn between love (even there Jayakrishnan is unsure) and his “imaginary” guilt, both the women in his life go out of the way to accommodate themselves in his life. If Clara prudently exits to facilitate his relationship with Radha, Radha will rather take Jayakrishnan on her own terms. But in the end, it is a win-win situation for the man. “I don’t wanna need you because I can’t have you,” –Robert James Waller might have written that for Clara. But the question still remains—was Jayakrishnan the man-child worthy of Clara’s or Radha’s love and loyalty?

Watch: Thoovanathumbikal on YouTube

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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