Thampu is this writer’s favourite Aravindan film — full of mysterious shadows and magical situations, this despite the director’s assertion that he found nothing mysterious in his films; a work of music, mime, grime and silence; showing up the lies, humiliations and depths of disgrace behind the glamour and tinsel of the big top; caressing the pains and revealing the perfidies of the art and the profession; lamenting the little tragedies and celebrating the occasional triumphs of the clowns and the musclemen, the trapeze artistes and the distraught managers of the show.
Simultaneously, the film is about village grown-ups who come with their little boys and girls to enjoy the performances, their eyes shining with anticipation and their mouths agape at the thought of what these mythical creatures would come up with next.
Thampu does not have a storyline as such; instead, it attracts the viewer with a succession of true-to-life images strung together by Aravindan’s unique poetics and his cinematographer Shaji Karun’s extraordinary visual flair. The film abounds in passages, long and short, that stick to the mind tenaciously.
For instance, as the camera glides over the faces of the mesmerised audience taking in the circus acts, the viewer, in his turn, almost forgets about the circus and instead comes to be glued to the gallery of faces frozen in fascination. Then again, there is a sad humour about the half-lit nocturnal shots showing the silent burly muscleman and his equally silent partner, the little clown, having a drink at the village liquor shop and, later, returning to the tent with the clown perched on the shoulder of the big man.
Yet again, who can ignore, unless he watches a film mechanically, the growing tension ending in a dramatic outburst involving the elderly clown who gets slapped by the manager for supposedly overdoing things. The chastised man is next shown sitting alone on the banks of the river that flows by the village where the circus has pitched its tent, looking at nowhere in particular. This picture of forlornness of the artiste in inescapable decline gnaws at the heart of the viewer, immersed by then in the enormity of Aravindan’s achievement.
Significantly, Thampu relates to an art form, a trade and an industry, indeed a way of life, with which many a maverick Malayali can easily identify himself. Every second or third circus artiste or circus manager in the country is still from the backwoods or backwaters of Kerala, particularly from the town of Thalassery in North Malabar, said to be the birth place of the Indian circus.
So, in a sense, Aravindan was fashioning in his quaint, quiet and even idiosyncratic way, universal symbols and motifs out of local, homespun material. Now that circus-going is slowly losing its attraction, what with less creative forms of entertainment rearing their ugly heads, there may soon come a time when students of sociology or of cultural history would have to turn to a film like Thampu to measure, for one thing, the extent of change that has overtaken popular tastes in matters of fun, enjoyment and creativity of a certain kind. At the same time, the film will harken back to a past in the history of Malayalam cinema when one of its great filmmakers thought nothing of taking on formidable challenges in areas diverse — artistic, aesthetic, ethnographic, et al.