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When the gold goes missing
In director Saheed Arafath’s Malayalam language film, Thankam, lead actors Biju Menon and Vineeth Sreenivasan play the role of gold traders Muthu and Kannan, who shuttle from city to city, making deals. During one such trip to Mumbai, carrying almost 18 pounds of gold, Kannan stops answering his phone. Muthu and others scramble to get hold of him, while their business partner becomes suspicious of Kannan’s motives. What happens next forms the basis for the plot of Thankam or gold.
With a near-perfect pacing, Thankam shines like its titular metal. Among the many highlights in the movie is the interrogation sequence in Kerala, where the Mumbai cops begin their investigation in an effort to trace Kannan’s path. An intriguing build-up to the back-story, the scene cuts back and forth between the different characters as they are questioned by the cops. The clever editing and juxtaposition of the characters raise the tension, as cops piece together the events leading up to Kannan’s travel.
The dirty business of gold trade
The interrogations of Muthu, Keerthy (Kannan’s wife, played by the multi-faceted Aparna Balamurali), and his parents reveal each character and their relationship with Kannan, while also keeping the viewer guessing about Kannan and his real motives.
The movie shines a light on the inherent risks of this business, and how the glitz and glamor of the jewelry industry is a false facade. During the interrogation, Muthu tells the cops how their wafer-thin margins left them in constant debt.
In an earlier scene, the night before Kannan’s disappearance, we see Keerthy (Aparna Balamurali) trying on a gold bangle and savoring the moment before Kannan takes it back to load the consignment. Aparna emotes wonderfully with her expressive eyes in a wordless but powerful moment in the film that reveals the inherent irony of their lives.
The search for leads takes the cops from Kerala to Tamil Nadu in a series of thrilling moments. Like the one in a narrow by-lane in Muthupettai where the cops go knocking on the door of a suspect. An old lady coughing in the background, a large crowd gathering outside the house, and a local bigwig storming in and interrupting the investigation create a feverish build-up to the scene that ends with the cops’ attempt falling thrillingly short. It is one of several pulsating sequences in the cops’ inter-state trip to solve the case.
Rooted in realism
Yet, never once do the makers of Thankam sacrifice authenticity. Constantly fighting the language barrier, an interpreter always accompanies the police. We have seen this technique of not papering over inter-state language challenges work marvelously in other impactful films like in Mahesh Narayanan’s recent movie Declaration, in Vetrimaaran’s Tamil film Visaranai (2015 ) and in Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi hit Sairat (2016).
Realism permeates the action sequences as well. For example, the fight scene in a cinema hall where the cops try to nab a suspect. Shot almost entirely without a body double, the weapon-free action sequence shows remarkable continuity. It reminded me of a scene in another fine Malayalam movie Innale Vare, where a man and woman muscle it out to reach the door of a claustrophobic 10×10 bedroom.
The cast brings their A-game
Brilliant performances by the entire cast aids the storytelling. Biju Menon and Vineeth Sreenivasan are perfect friends and business partners. They feature together in only a handful of scenes, but they are so well crafted that the relationship is solidly established. Their bromance is on full display when they hum a popular Tamil song from the nineties on the opposite ends of a phone line.
With sharp comic timing, Vineeth David as their friend Bejoy is terrific. Even during the most frenetic search for a suspect, the man tricks a teenager into revealing her friend’s name in a most creatively humorous manner.
If there was one actor perfectly suited for the role of the key suspect Abbas, it had to be Kalaiyarasan. Even for supporting roles, the man has an incredible screen presence, as seen in Tamil hits like Kabali and Sarpatta Paramabarai. In Thankam, he makes the grandest entry, standing up in a dark and sparsely crowded movie hall, unwittingly walking up to a trap and then announcing that no one can get him.
A one-of-a-kind meditative murder mystery, Thankam is every bit of an emotional drama as it is a thriller. We love the movie’s characters so much that long after it is done, the image of two friends standing on a beach and staring at each other continues to haunt us. Like its precious namesake, you cannot take your eyes and your minds off Thankam.