Film Thoughts: Thenmavin Kombathu (1994, Malayalam - Shobana, Mohanlal)

Saturday, November 7, 2009
My Verdict? While this one has some sweet and funny moments, lovely cinematography, and nice shots of village life, I think one really needs to speak Malayalam and/or understand the culture to truly understand it and the humor.
The title - Doesn't Malayalam look lovely? I call it the language of "M's", because that's what it looks like to me. :)
The film is centered around a village in which panchayat meetings are held to determine the fate of adulterers, cows and people wash in the river, tribal women wear special saris, and Pongal is celebrated with exciting bullock-cart races! It sounds like one of *those* village films, but it actually stays pretty lighthearted and silly until the intermission.

Essentially, the plot revolves around Manikan (Mohanlal) and Sreekrishna (Venu) who are very good friends that both fall in love with Karuthambi (Shobana), a young women they gave a bullock-cart ride to when she and her uncle were stranded one evening. When Sreekrishna misunderstands that Karuthambi returns his love while not knowing that she really loves Manikan, it sets in place a whole series of assumptions and confusion that gets more serious, thick, and convoluted as the film progresses. The main instigator in thickening the plot is the creepy-looking servant that makes up terrible lies to harm Manikan, whom he is jealous of. When the matriarch of the house learns that her brother Sreekrishna has been confused all along and will get hurt when he finds the truth, she asks Manikan to forget Karuthambi for his friend’s sake. The plot gets thicker and thicker as the characters keep trying different strategies and manipulations to get what they want while all operating under different assumptions. There's also fun excursions like Karuthambi's theater dance, a couple of extended fights that pale in comparison to Tamil/Telugu films, and a sequence in which Karuthambi tricks Manikan into using the phrase "Muthu Gavu" whilst in Mysore (apparently it means "Kiss Me," but how does she know their language anyway?)
Karuthambi/Karthumbi (Shobana)

Manikan (Mohanlal)
Sreekrishna (Nedumudi Venu) - Looking a bit old to be wooing Shobana, but I was impressed with his acting!
Creepy servant guy (Sreenivasan)
I found the film hard to understand and had fairly regular wtf moments. It probably has to do with the subtitles not translating things correctly and me not being familiar with village culture. Keeping track of who was related to whom and which name matched which face and basic stuff like that was a chore. I also felt like the film couldn’t decide if it wanted to be serious and emotional or silly and outside reality. The first half had so many adorable moments. I loved Venu's acting as he fell in love with Karuthambi, Mohanlal had some humorous dialogues, and I was humored by the stream of obscenities Karuthambi's uncle murmured in his sleep. However, in the second half, the film switched tone and became steeped in traditional village culture and practices. In the beginning, the Panchayat meeting was sort of played for laughs and neither Manikan nor Sreekrishna took it seriously. But for some reason in the second half, suddenly Manikan is accused of rape and he doesn’t fight it at all and acts just like an uneducated, superstitious villager. I couldn’t figure out why everyone in the village would believe things at the drop of a hat with no explanation.
The music for the film is quite sweet. The "Nilapongalayello" song played over the credits is very cute, but most of the songs sound a bit dated. I enjoyed Karuthambi's super-cute theater performance picturised in "Ende Manasil Oru Naanam." Other songs: "Karutha Penne" is the romantic-duo song, "Maanam Thelinjininnaal" is the village group dance song, and "Kalli Poonguyile" revolves around Manikan/village girl's relationship.
Apparently, Thenmavin Kombath is a well-liked film and back in its day it won the Kerala State Film award and KV Anand and Sabu Cyril won the National Award for Best Cinematography/Art Direction. While I didn’t enjoy the story much overall, what I really liked were all the little slices of life that I always find so fascinating, as well as the lovely cinemetography. Here’s some screencaps:
Drying clothes out in the sun
Drinking the juice from a plant (per the comments, it is part of the Banana Plant!)
The Panchayat's threat to the woman accused of adultery (hehe)
The soothsayer that uses parrots to pick his fortune-telling cards
Kerala Folk Dancers
For some reason all of the servants live in straw treehouses like these. I would have loved this growing up! :D
Giving cows a scrubbity-dub-dub
When Manikan and Karthumi get lost and end up in Mysore, the local women wear white arm bands like this. I always associate this look with Gujarat tribal women- very interesting.
Bullock cart rides
Interesting headwear!
The Kerala Mundu Set (2-piece)
The tribal servant girl's "sari" - so sexy! Love the knot.
Beautiful palm trees
Communicating an offer during cow-bargaining is done under a handkerchief, I think!
I notice a recurring theme in Kerala of having head adornments off to one side. It's most obvious in the side-bun that Mohiniattam dancers often wear, but I also noticed it in shots like these:


  1. I believe I saw this listed at Bhavani at one point in time, but it appears to be sold out at the moment. The prettyfull screen caps make me wanna order it, just 'cause.

  2. I saw this on a list of recommended Malayalam films once, but I didn't know anything about it, so thanks for the review. It's nice to get the perspective of someone else who doesn't speak the language or understand the culture, since some movies don't translate as well across cultures and with subtitles.

    My little sister was asking me about white arm bangles just the other day, since Ileana wears them in one of the songs in Munna. It's interesting that they show up here too.

    Oh, and I love those straw treehouses. Those are some gorgeous shots.

  3. lapetitediva - so glad you liked the screencaps! I absolutely loved the part of the movie at the beginning that takes place on the bullock cart ride, so I would consider the movie worth a buy just for that and the beautiful cinematography. And I love Shobana's pissy expressions- she's so good at them!

    Cindy - I probably looked at the same list you did, haha. It's hard because you'll find all these great reviews online but they are often written by a native to that culture, which, in a movie like Thenmavin Kombathu, can be a little problematic. So glad you liked the screencaps. :)

  4. Thenmavin Kombathu was nothing much in the story department, but the cinematography is what kept you glued to the seats, plus Kuthiravattam Pappu's (the abusive, profane Uncle)stellar act. The songs were lift offs from popular tunes, "Maanam Thelinje Vannal" was a bar-by-bar copy of Aasai Adhigam Vechu from Marupadiyum, for starters. Also, it might be of interest to you that it was also choreographed by Shobhana herself!

  5. I did not know that about the choreography, thank you! I'm glad to hear that what I liked about the film is what others focused on too- the cinematography is indeed so lovely.

  6. Hey,

    I have been reading your blog for a long time now but commenting for the first time now.

    You really have an impressive blog; love the details. While I have been watching a lot of indian cinema from the 80's growing up in Chennai, I never much followed/had any idea of classical dances but thanks to your blog, I have watched a lot of videos :)

    Coming to Malayalam films, have you watched films by the great director Padmarajan? Almost all his films (made primarily in the 80's) are classics and he in many ways, ushered in the "Golden Era" of Malayalam cinema.... films like thoovanathumbikal, namukku paarkan mundhiri thoppukal, etc


    1. Ajit - Thank you very much for the kind words- happy to hear you've gained greater exposure to film classical dances! I haven't had a chance to see any of the films of Padmarajan yet, though I've been wanting to see Innale with Shobana for a long time. I've always heard of his name is very glowing terms, but many films from that time period seem to be difficult to find.

    2. Hey MM, Thanks for the reply!

      If you dont mind watching them the "indian" way.... then I suggest you search for them on youtube :) I know youtube has all these films uploaded in it..... and many of them have eng subs as well like thoovanathumbikal..........


    3. Ajit - Thanks for the suggestion. Last time I had checked on YouTube I hadn't been successful, but I'll take another look!

    4. Well, in that case:

      The picture quality might not be great.......

  7. Chanced upon this now. When you mention "Drinking the juice from a plant (identity?)" Do you mean which plant it is? If so, it is the inflorescense of the banana plant. The flower has layers where each flower is the yellow one. It looks like a miniature banana bunch.

    1. Yes, that's just what I meant. A banana plant! Wow, I had no idea they had such pretty flowers on them. Thanks for the ID. :)

  8. Yes, the flowers are delicious. I am die hard fan of a spicy savory dish made from the flowers. Not made from the red covering, though.
    Hmmm...I am getting a craving now...


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