Thira: Shobhana as an Avenging Goddess is What I Always Wanted and Never Knew It

This was quite the challenge!  I ordered the DVD from India, as part of a huge order, and it just plain didn’t play!  Both in my regional and my all-regional DVD player, so it must be a flaw in the disc itself.  But not to worry! I was able to find it on youtube without subtitles, and separately find a subtitle file I could drop in.

Before talking about anything else, the behind the scenes maneuvering for the casting is fascinating!  It was a situation where they had three not-quite-stars and managed to smooch them together into one big name.  And I am so sophisticated and experienced in my Malayalam film viewing now that I could sort of recognize all of them!

It is directed by Vineeth Sreenivasan, who I guess is now a fairly well-known actor, even if you wouldn’t exactly call him a “star”.  Would that be correct?  I’ve only seen him in glorified friendly appearances, in Ohm Shanti Oshaana and Traffic.  But his father is a big star of the character actor type, Sreenivasan, who I’ve seen in a ton of stuff, including as the lead in Arabikkatha.  And Vineeth’s previous directing job was  Thattathin Marayathu, which was a huge hit.  So he is known both as a solid actor, and a solid director, and the son of a biggish name.

(This guy)

It stars Vineeth’s younger brother, Dhyan Sreenivasan.  It is his first movie, but people know his brother and his father, so it isn’t like he has no name recognition.  Especially with his brother directing this, just to remind us all how the family is connected.

(This guy)

And then there’s Shobhana.  Huge huge star back in the 90s. And I’d seen her in a bunch of stuff from her heyday (Innale, Manichitrathazhu, Thenmavin Kombath).  That’s how I know she was huge, just from the way the films I’ve seen have been built around her.  In Innale, she was the single central character, and in Manichitrathazhu and Thenmavin Kombath, she shared the space equally with Mohanlal, if not being even more central than him (Manichitrathazhu, where Mohanlal doesn’t evens how up until right before intermission).  And here, again, she is the central lead.  Except, this isn’t during her heyday anymore, this is when she is much too old to pull off a traditional young heroine, and much too long after she had last appeared onscreen to count on the audience immediately recognizing her (4 years since her last film, and another four years before that when she was a lead).

(This lady)

So, we have a known name behind the camera, one lead in front of the camera who is related to a big name (Sreenivasan), and another lead who used to be a big name.  Put them all together, mix well, and you have one solid promotable movie!

(This guy is the father of those other two guys)

The “mixing well” is the interesting part.  At least, to me.  Shobhana is definitely the Star of the film, but Dhyan is our protagonist.  You can look at the structure two ways.  Dhyan is our window into this world, the one we care about the most, the one with a defined goal, all of that.  Shobhana just helps him achieve that goal.

But nobody is going to watch a movie with Dhyan Sreenivasan, some guy we’ve never heard of.  So they took Shobhana’s character, and gave her more scenes of confronting people or triumphing over her enemies or whatever, just to fluff up her screentime.  That’s why there is the duel structure for half the film, where you see them on individual journeys.  You could just as easily cut Shobhana’s journey and just start showing her when she meets Dhyan, but then you would lose her star power.

That’s the first way to look at the structure.  Here is the other.  If you want Shobhana to play this perfect avenging goddess, if you want her not to change at all over the course of the film (because she is already perfect), then you need some one else to provide the character growth and movement in the film.  So you put in Dhyan to be the weak cautious guy who grows strong by the end, the one we can all relate to as a fellow human.

(Same reason you needed Abhishek in Sarkar)

Either way of looking at the film production process is good, I suspect it was less one or the other and more a combination of the two.  From what I can find about the creation process, Vineeth started with the character of a woman based on Somaly Mam.  Well, to be more accurate, on Somaly Mam’s false claims about herself (her life story was debunked shortly after this film came out).  So, a strong mature woman who rescues young girls from human trafficking.  Don’t you think at some point early in the process he probably thought “Hey, if I have this super strong older female character, I can probably sneak my brother in as the hero and give him a great launch!”?  Or even “Hey, my brother can have a good launch if I can come up with a movie idea with a super strong female lead to balance him!”

But once he had the idea, even if he decided to go with it because of how it could help his brother’s career, it was built around Shobhana’s character, with Dhyan only being important in how he intersects with her story.  There is talk of it being a trilogy starring her Shobhana, with different young men balancing her and providing the youthful/male touch to the story.  But Shobhana and her quest would be the linking element

Oh!  And that’s another interesting structural thing!  If you think your film might be the start of a series, but don’t want to commit until you know how successful it is, then you need a small discrete story as your A story, and you want to make the grander epic plot your B story.  Just in case.  The same is true for books, think about how the first Harry Potter book ended versus every other one after that.  If the first one had only done moderately well, Rawlings could have stopped there and we would have all thought the story was over.

(Rawlings also put in the flawed secondary characters in Ron and Hermione, so the audience would have someone to relate to.  It was only in the 2nd book that she started exploring Harry’s flaws)

Okay, moving beyond the structure and casting (finally!), the themes were great!  I loved the idea that a bunch of old powerful men were just irreparably evil, that society is so broken the only chance to fight against it is by going underground.  That public opinion, the media, none of that matters, only solving the problem in front of you.

Not only do I think that is a great way to structure a film, with a defined problem and a defined solution, I think it is a great way to approach public safety issues.  Don’t work on passing a law banning prostitution, don’t work on getting a “police task force”, just pick up the next girl you see on the street and take her to a safe place.  That’s it.  There wasn’t even a big focus on punishing the perpetrators, because what is more important, destroying their lives or saving the lives of their victims?

Okay, I think here is where I need to get into the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER stuff, so I can talk in more specifics about what I mean.  So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

 

We start with Shobhana getting the huge hero introduction.  A dark and stormy night, she goes blazing into an office to shout about injustice.  And intercut with that, we have a little girl talking to other girls in a dormitory, telling a story about when Shobhana rescued her from the “bad people.”  But while Shobhana is away, talking to her old friend/government guy about how her husband was framed leading directly to his death in jail, and people are trying to shut down her human trafficking rescue operation, dark figures break into the dormitory and kidnap the girls!  Shobhana returns home to be told what happened by the old woman and young boy who were in charge while she was away, and immediately starts hunting for the culprits.  It’s all very exciting and impressive, but it is kind of hard to grasp.  A lot of information is being shared very quickly, there are all these different plot conflicts, proving her husband’s innocence and rescuing her girls and confronting the corrupt politicians.  Plus, Shobhana is so blazing and perfect, it is hard to relate to her.

So, now we are introduced to an alternative lead.  A young man, a bit of a slacker, returning home after a few years away following a fight with his father.  He is telling a passenger on the bus with him about his family, and highlighting his younger sister, who he clearly dotes on and has missed even more than his parents.  He is meeting her in the city that morning, and then they will travel together back to the family home.  The director ratchets up the tension here, we see him struggling to find the right place to get off the bus, to find the cafe where they are meeting, and meanwhile we see a shadowy figure taking a picture of his sister, another man receiving a phone call about her and sending someone off to get her.  All the way until Dhyan is standing under a canopy talking on his cell phone with his sister as she walks towards him, unknowingly standing next to a man who is talking on a cell about kidnapping his sister.

See, this is something we can grasp!  A flawed nice person, just as the audience sees themselves, unknowingly moving closer and closer to danger.  And when it happens, when his sister is taken, it is shocking!  More shocking than seeing all those girls kidnapped at the beginning, because it feels like something that has happened to “us”.

And then Dhyan and Shobhana are on separate paths to the same destination.  But while Shobhana is driving forward with confidence and surety, always seeming to see the next step in front of her, Dhyan is flailing and desperate, trying whatever he can to get the answers he needs.  Until finally they land up in the same place, tied up in a dark underground basement.

And from then on, Dhyan isn’t flailing, because he is Shobhana’s directed missile.  She knows exactly what she wants him to do and tells him exactly how to do it.  Just like she already has other directed missiles through out the city.  We see random phone company employees, watchguards, everyone calling her up and feeding her info.  And we can put together that they all had a backstory like Dhyan’s, they have their own personal motivations for getting involved with her cause, and they have learned to trust her to direct their actions.

Which brings me to my hopes for the possible-potential sequel!  This film ends with Shobhana meeting the independent journalist who left them the clues they needed to save the girls.  But we, the audience, don’t get to see his face.  Which felt like a kind of odd choice to me, until I learned that there might be a sequel and it hasn’t been cast yet.  So they are looking for a big male name, Dulquer was mentioned (personally, I hope for Nivin Pauly, my favorite!), to play the reporter, but they didn’t know who it would be when they shot this scene.  Presumably, if/when there is a sequel, it will pick up immediately at this point and reveal the face of the big name they get to play the reporter.

Even with another young man, I really hope it continues to be a non-romantic interaction with Shobhana acting as the wise directing force, sending her young man off to do battle for her.  Giving him fighting tips and directing him how to talk to people and what to say and stuff.  And what would be really cool is if Dhyan had a friendly appearance as one of her new foot-soldiers.  Like, she needs an IP address tracked, so she calls him because now he is working for an internet company or something.  So it continues to be the story of Shobhana, the Goddess, and all her little followers.  Instead of turning into the usual “hero” story, where the woman is stuck on the side-lines fainting and screaming (same hopes for Kahaani 2, filming now!).

(Normally I love Arjun, but I am very nervous about the director decreasing Vidya’s part to make more room for Arjun)

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6 thoughts on “Thira: Shobhana as an Avenging Goddess is What I Always Wanted and Never Knew It

  1. considering the budget constraints of a malayalam film,this was a good achievement to make a thriller of this quality…budget was around 34 millions INR which is less than what bollywood spends for some item songs and the film is commendable for the technical brilliance..especially cinematography and music department..Shobhana Maams performance was a treat to watch..every malayalee is a fan of her…another good thing about the movie is it is entirely different from Thattathn marayathu even though the crew behind the camera is the same..
    I dont think Nivin pauly will be there in the sequel as Vineeth is looking for a surprising hero..Nivin Pauly is part of Vineeths all projects(even his last film ‘Jacobinte Swargarajyam’ which was a big hit and a nice feel good family film)..infact he is the godfather of Nivin Pauly…

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    • Wow, it is impressive what they were able to do on that budget! They were really clever about it, I never felt like they would have done more if they had more money, or like they cut corners somewhere. They just came up with a clever story and a clever way to film it using the money they had.

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