By all rights, Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol should have been a sex comedy – one of those films in which a married man begins to scratch that seven-year itch. Mohanlal plays Ulahannan, a panchayat official whose life is leached of excitement. The first time we see him, he’s snoring in a bus. He’s married to Annyamma (Meena, suffering some terrible makeup), but she tells a sympathetic neighbour that he hasn’t looked properly at her in months. She sleeps with the children, while he locks himself up in their bedroom. “I don’t disturb her and she doesn’t disturb me,” he tells a friend.
Into this life, a bombshell is dropped. Her name is Julie (Neha Saxena). She’s dressed in bright red, she smells of Dior perfume. Ulahannan is smitten. A slow, idiotic grin spreads over his face every time she calls. The scene is set for farcical shenanigans, something like Sathi Leelavathi – but the director Jibu Jacob is after something bigger, more wistful, and, yes, sadder. This is, if you will, a sex dramedy. Julie, it turns out, is as unhappy as Annyamma – her husband never asks her if she is happy. Ulahannan’s former flame, Indu (Asha Sharath), tells him that her husband, who’s ten years older, is always suspicious. And we get the line that firmly sets the film’s tone: “Marriage is not to forget the past. It is an attempt to convince others we’ve forgotten the past.”
Munthirivallikal, then, is a chronicle of marriage. And it shines a spotlight – sometimes briefly, sometimes throughout – on many marriages. Ulahannan’s. Julie’s. Indu’s. The boozy old neighbour’s, the man whose wife keeps locking him out. Venukuttan’s. The latter is Ulahannan’s friend (played by Anoop Menon, who aces the difficult task of making sliminess endearing), and he keeps flirting with women over the phone, saving their numbers under male names so his wife won’t catch on. It’s cheating, but the director’s gentle, tactful, unjudgemental handling of these characters and the sometimes-sordid situations they are trapped in make us see the bigger picture, that monotony can dull the edges of a marriage and men begin to exhibit the classic symptoms of mid-life crisis. (Women do too, but when men behave badly, we are still in the realm of a “family entertainer.” Boys will be boys, et cetera. When women behave badly, the film becomes an edgy Phantom production.)
The film’s biggest strength, apart from the marvellously understated performances (especially by Mohanlal) is that its message – nurture your relationships or they will wither and die – is always under the surface. There are a few over-expository lines and the ending is a bit of a disaster. Suddenly, the events, involving Ulahannan’s daughter Jini (Aima Rosmy Sebastian), turn preachy and melodramatic and plot-heavy. Bits of the film seem off. The scenes of Ulahannan at work are fun (a rather theatrical co-worker is a riot), but there’s a small action scene that feels out of place in these placid surroundings. But you’ve taken these people to heart, and a few missteps don’t matter.
Among these people is Ulahannan’s colleague Lilykutty, who has a crush on him. Another film would use her for comedy. She’d keep coming on to Ulahannan and he’d keep swatting her away, as though she were a pesky mosquito. But Ulahannan later says he kept away from her because he was afraid he’d be tempted, that he’d fall for her. Once again, there’s some hypocrisy here. (So he resists the ordinary-looking Lilykutty, but has no such qualms with Julie?) But we see that this is Ulahannan’s hypocrisy, not the film’s.
We see this in the lovely scene where Ulahannan confesses to Annyamma that he had a thing for Julie, and she hears him out while doing her chores. She isn’t wide-eyed, open-mouthed – because she probably knew, and also because she has her own confession to make. This is treated like comedy, but it’s nice to see a mainstream movie where a husband is made to tolerate his wife’s “infidelities” as much as she’s made to tolerate his. Munthirivallikal works best when it maps out these little details in a marriage.
There’s a Drishyam-like subplot about Jini, who falls for a rich dude. Ulahannan realises she’s becoming a woman and he wants to ask her how far things have gone, but at that precise moment she asks him for help with her English homework and he realises she’s still his little girl. I smiled when Jini catches her newly invigorated parents in a clinch, but beneath the “cuteness” of the moment, we get Annyamma’s acute embarrassment. How can she assume moral higher ground and lecture her daughter about sex when she herself has been “caught”? This is a beautiful observation about sexual guilt that many Indian women still feel, and it’s all the more beautiful for appearing in a film that can be seen with the family.
- Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol = when the vines sprout
Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.