In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, a dehumanising labour recruitment and discipline practice called the 'chappa' system was operational in Cochin. It was a system controlled by a network of port authorities, shipping agents, and worksite supervisors known as 'mooppans', who held power over thousands of manual labourers and porters.
The 'chappa' system was such that copper coins would be thrown by the mooppen’s men, and labourers would fight each other to grab one to gain work for that day. Every day this ordeal would repeat.
Later, mooppans were replaced by labour unions like Cochi Thuramukha Thozhilali Union (CTTU), which started assigning jobs only to those affiliated with them. The condition of the ordinary labourers remained the same, and the labourers associated with Port Cargo Labor Union (PCLU) went on a massive strike in 1953. On September 15, 1953, the 75th day since the “chappa samara” started, workers, refused to unload a ship of P.G. Khona company that was anchored at the Cochin port. The PCLU workers had a scuffle with the CTTU leaders. They believed that the CTTU settled the strike in favour of the shipping agents and prevented the effort of the agents to unload the ship using PCLU-affiliated workers. This soon led to the arrest of a major leader of CTTU.
Provoked by the arrests, the CTTU members stopped the police vehicle and tried to get the leaders out of it. Soon, it became a street fight between the police and the workers, and three CTTU members—Syed, Saidalvi, and Antony—were shot dead. This incident known as Mattancherry Vediveyppu (Mattancherry firing) forms the backbone of Rajeev Ravi’s film Thuramukham. However, the film’s focus is not on the tragic incident but on the socio-economic and political factors that led to that incident.
The film is an adaptation of a 1968 namesake play by K.M. Chithambaram. The play, which was one of the few literary accounts of the tragic firing incident, won the Kerala Sahitya Parishad Award in 1973. In 2018, Chithambaram’s son Gopan Chithambaram revived and brought back the play to the stage with the help of Collective Phase One, a production house of which Ravi is also a part. Gopan, who was the co-scenarist of Amal Neerad’s period drama, Iyobinte Pusthakam, wrote the screenplay for Ravi’s version of Thuramukham too.
Ravi is a cinematographer-filmmaker who blends the uniqueness of his locations into his narrative as well. Such a treatment could be visible in Thuramukham too. Though the film tells the story of a land, everything is seen from the perspective of a Muslim family in Mattancherry.
When the Cochin port was opened in 1928, people from different parts of Malabar and the princely state of Travancore flocked to Kochi in the hope of finding jobs. The film opens with the narrative of this early phase. It shows how the exploitative system worked while portraying the daily struggles of Maimu (Joju George) and his wife (Poornima Indrajith). This portion offers some beautiful black-and-white frames and tricks of light and shades.
Then comes a perspective shift from Maimu to his sons, Moidu (Nivin Pauly) and Hamsa (Arjun Ashokan), who also become part of the labour force in the port like their father. But the similarity between the two brothers ends there. Moidu becomes a hand of the oppressors, while Hamsa stays with the oppressed labourers, and they cross paths at various junctures.
The film conveys the idea that the biggest impediment to the progress of labour movements is the lack of unity among the labourers. It also explores how the bourgeoisie class uses—and later snubs—those from the working class to oppress others from the same class. Thuramukham also touches upon various other issues—debt traps, early marriages, illiteracy, and lack of awareness about rights—that were part of the lives of ordinary men and women in Mattancherry. The film’s script and narrative are faithful to the period it portrays.
Poornima delivers a powerful performance as the mother of Hamsa and Moidu. She handles the different phases in the life of a woman—who had seen multiple tragedies—with ease. Joju uses his nuanced expressions to deliver a wonderful performance in the first phase of the film. Like Poornima, Sudev Nair, too, delivers a nuanced performance as a character that evolves over the course of the film. Nivin uses his physique to the advantage of his alcoholic and lousy character. However, in certain scenes—especially action scenes—his physique becomes an impediment to giving a fine-tuned performance. Arjun delivers a believable performance as Hamsa.
Nimisha Sajayan plays the role of an orphan girl Ummini, and Darshana Rajendran plays the role of Moidu and Hamsa’s sister Kaachi. Both characters were unimpressive, as the actors could not bring a Mattancherry flavour to them.
Thuramukham’s runtime is 2 hours and 54 minutes. The story is spread over the lives of many different characters. The film employs a linear and slow-paced narrative, closer to a documentary-style treatment. However, too many subplots (though all related) in the narrative ruin the focus on the main plot. Also, tighter editing would have worked in the film's favour to become a theatrical hit.
The film sees the struggle of the working class as a continuous event. This is seen in the narrative, too, which portrays the different phases of the rights protests. However, the film offers a bland climax that fails to shake the minds of the audience.
The film’s art team deserves a huge round of applause for recreating Mattancherry of different decades. The music by Shahbaz Aman also gels well with the narrative. Thuramukham was a film that was supposed to hit theatres in 2021. However, its release was postponed multiple times—first because of Covid and later because of certain financial issues faced by the producer. But this was a film that deserved a theatrical release, though it is more likely to be appreciated when released on OTT.
Director: Rajeev Ravi
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Joju George, Poornima Indrajith, Arjun Ashokan, Nimisha Sajayan, Darshana Rajendran, Sudev Nair