Copper pieces go up in the air, thrown imperiously by a man flanked by his goons. When the pieces land, desperate men fight against each other to get hold of one. The ones who manage to secure a piece heave a sigh of relief, while the rest walk back with drooping shoulders. This is not the scene from some old-world competitive sport, but the work allocation system followed in the Cochin harbour till the 1950s. Only the ones who got the copper pieces, known as ‘chappa’, got work allocated due to the day, mostly loading and unloading work in the harbour.
Building workers’ solidarity in such an environment, where survival depends on snatching your chance before someone else got it, must have been quite a task. Rajeev Ravi’s fifth directorial Thuramukham is the chronicle of the building up of the left workers’ union, and the tragic event at Mattancherry in 1953, when three protesting workers perished to police bullets. It is a struggle on which not much has been written about. K.M.Chidambaram’s play Thuramukham, based on the struggle, has been adapted for the screen by his son Gopan Chidambaram.
The story of the workers’ fightback has all the elements of a commercial pot-boiler, yet Rajeev Ravi sticks to what we have known him to do. He patiently recreates the time, the place and the social situation in all its rich authenticity, and places at its centre a family. The mother (Poornima Indrajith) is the marker of the passage of time, having witnessed the struggle being built up from the ground by her husband Maimu (Joju George), and in which her sons (Nivin Pauly and Arjun Ashokan) would later play their own parts too. The sufferings of women like her, which often plays out in the background of many a heroic struggle, is placed at the forefront here.
Director: Rajeev Ravi
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Poornima Indrajith, Indrajith Sukumaran, Joju George, Arjun Ashokan, Sudev Nair, Manikandan Achari, Nimisha Sajayan, Darshana Rajendran
It is not a story of individual heroism, which gets played down, in the service of the collective. Nivin Pauly, the biggest star of the lot, gets to play an anti-hero of sorts for a while, becoming one of the henchmen for the oppressor. But the script does not look harshly at the likes of him too, always making us aware of the abject conditions, and their own lack of awareness, which make them take up whatever pays for their next meal, or drink. Then there are references to real-life heroes like the union leader Santo Gopalan (Indrajith Sukumaran), hardly ever wavering from the ideal, and suffering for it.
Even the breath-taking climax sequence, of a pitched street battle between the workers and the police, does not have its leading figures (except the worker played by Arjun Ashokan), just like how Rajinikanth’s protagonist is absent from Kaala’s climax. The way that sequence is arrived at, from the coming together of many smaller street processions into a massive street rally, could also be considered a commentary about a movement that had by then grown bigger than any of its individual leaders.
What might work against the movie is the three-hour run-time, with some passages that are just not engaging enough. Yet, Thuramukham remains an honest and important document of workers’ struggle to unionise for their rights, in an era in which such hard-won rights are chipped away, and even feeble protests are mocked at.
Thuramukham is currently running in theatres
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