For all the acclaim that Malayalam cinema has earned, the thriller or action genre has been largely unexplored. In this wilderness, however, there exists a cult movie like Thazhvaram (The Valley – 1990), where two stalwarts – MT and Bharathan – come together to cleave a fascinating revenge saga. People have largely compared this movie to the world of Spaghetti western classics immortalized by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood and this remains the only such venture by mainstream Malayalam cinema.
The plot is fairly straight forward – it is a story of a man seeking to avenge his wife’s murder. Balan (Mohanlal) arrives in a remote hilly tribal area in Agali (in Palakkad) in search of Raghavan (Salim Ghouse), who is now a close associate of Nanuettan (Sankaradi) with possibly plans of settling down there after marrying Nanuettan’s daughter Kochutti (Sumalatha). The movie moves back and forth in time oscillating between the present and Raghavan’s past till the very end when we get a clear picture of his treachery. The cat and mouse game thrills till it finishes in a brilliantly orchestrated climax.
Right from the first scene when Balan carves out his bête noire Raghavan’s photo from a photo frame of the two together, you know what to expect. There are no surprises and you know the story has a clear revenge plot where Balan will eventually succeed (of course, knowing the penchant of Malayalam directors to force tragedy endings till the 90s, this could still have been a surprise then). But the taut script holds your attention till the very end and there is never a dull predictable moment despite the inevitability of the end.
Death and revenge looms large over the movie and the valley forms an important element in the movie. Time is a meaningless concept here and it is only the songs on the radio which act as any sort of reference to its passage. The camera (by Venu) keeps staring down at the valley and there is an edginess to the surroundings; the cold and dry hills and the remoteness of the place, dry landscape, vultures lurking constantly for their prey – all these create the image of the Jungle where only the fittest can survive.
The only place of habitation is downhill where the presence of a film poster (Ramarajan in Anbu Kattalai) shows the fleeting sense of entertainment in these parts. There is no attempt to romanticize life in this remote place – there are no neighbours, no transport or communication facilities and while Nanuettan and Kochutti wish to live here, there is an uneasy truce between modern facilities and sedentary life here which they have to make to enjoy the place. They co-habit the place along with the danger of wild animals but then no wild animal possesses the same danger as a human being.
The landscape of the movie is dotted with very few characters but each has a role to perform in building the momentum in the plot. Balan has forgiven Raghavan many a times and he has had to pay heavily for it. He has nothing more to lose and arrives in Agali in search of Raghavan (the makeup of the two is the only hint that we have of a possible time lapse between his loss and arrival here). What are his feelings towards Kochutti – love, gratitude or maybe even sympathy; we do not know and Bharathan wisely does not attempt to explain this any further.
Raghavan (dubbed by Shammi Thilakan) is a totally dark and menacing character with a monstrous aura and no redeeming features at all. He is party to all vices and lives in fear of retribution (he is wary when he sees fire, hears the sound of the buffaloes and everything else). He is neither interested in land nor marriage but agrees to go along with Nanuettan till he can find a better plan. Even when is in trouble, he tries to negotiate a deal with Balan and escape but by the end Balan knows well enough that there is no alternative (echoed by Nanuettan when he says Kollenadathanu kollanam. Daya vicharichu vitta athu pinne athilum anartham undaakum. Droham undakkana size aanennuvannal tharam undavumbol kollanam. Athane malela niyamam…while referring to the attack by animals in the wild).
Nanuettan is essentially a lower caste worker who runs away with an upper caste woman and settles down in the remote hills. He soon lords over the tribals of the place and owns large tracts of land in the place himself but he knows that he needs to get his daughter married quickly enough, knowing that the remote hills are no place for a woman to live alone in the long run. He keeps attempting to get Raghavan to buy land there and settle down and get him married to Kochutti as a pragmatic endeavour to take care of his daughter, though you suspect he realizes that Kochutti does not approve the match and Raghavan is directionless and indecisive about his future.
The relationship between Kochutti and Balan is ambiguous; there is a background sexual tension but this is largely kept at bay because of her suspicion. She is a beautiful and outspoken woman who realizes that she may have to settle down with Raghavan but is not convinced about the relationship. There are suggestions that she is lonely and wishes to move to a more inhabited place or even meet her relatives. There is a hinted rivalry between the two protagonists for her but she is unable to decide who is honest; these two men are the only men she’s spent time with, other than her father.
Thazhvaram boasts of the most spectacular background music that I have heard in Malayalam. Johnson’s scintillating music and Venu’s haunting cinematography create a palpable tension which reaches its crescendo in a brilliant climax where the two men fight each other in a mad sense of desperation. As they lunge at each other wildly, vultures make their way to the place awaiting their dinner; easily one of the most fascinatingly etched out scenes in the movie.
With only four characters as the locus and no great dramatic developments, it would have been difficult to keep the plot engaging but therein lies the craft of the director. It is tough to tell if the script would have been so captivating on paper without this backdrop and the technical finesse brought in by the crew. Bharathan paints his frames in brown and green hues and creates the deathly mood; the dialogues are calm and sparse, there are extended close-ups of the protagonist, the background music builds the momentum till it all culminates in a duel that settles matters finally.
It is largely a director’s movie but the simmering tensions between Mohanlal and Salim Ghouse in the movie which are largely dormant till the finale, gives it that raw edginess that separates it from a more seasoned revenge drama. I’d be tempted to think of Murali, instead of Salim Ghouse, as Raghavan but even for a minute, I don’t think you can doubt the prowess of Salim in creating such an unscrupulous villain. Sumalatha as a possible font of desire in the wild is the perfect choice while Sankaradi goes around quietly playing another of his numerous roles that made him such an integral part in a lot of the movies those days.
Thazhvaram remains a one of its kind movie in an untapped genre with exceptions like Season; can’t recollect more of this kind. Considering MTs large body of work as a scriptwriter, it is worth asking why Thazhvaram is the only other movie he and Bharathan did together, other than Vaishali – maybe the fact that Bharathan was more of a painter and let his frames and camera speak than words had some bearing. Thazhvaram is a wonderful reminder of the fact that the 80’s and the early 90’s were indeed probably the best period ever for Malayalam Cinema. This is a film that one can never get enough of and only tends to grow on you.It is a great puzzle to why the movie was not successful when it was released but over the years like many great works of art, it has emerged as a cult movie…
Note- This post was originally written in 2011 in a mood of nostalgia lamenting Mohan Lal’s choice of films and it has been edited and published again now.