Thallumaala: The ethics of brawling

Malayalam cinema has seen a lot of brawls since its inception, the Savarna brawls, farcical fights of the middle class, Goonda clashes of the oppressed classes, and many other fights according to the needs and moods of the films. However the trend of centralizing fights as an important element or rather as the main element is very recent.

These movies centralize fights by capturing them in special ways, by giving them much importance in the movie’s plot line. But these acts or rather actions of violence are very distinct from the ones that Malayalam cinema has usually seen, rather these are the fights of middle classes or oppressed classes, in between the classes or amongst themselves. These movies that centralize violence usually give a whiff of a carnival, they can be rather carnivalesque, as termed by Mikhail Bakhtin. Angamali Diaries and Ajagajantharam are some of the prime examples of this genre. The carnivalesque atmosphere in these movies creates a space and time where everyone becomes equal. It is violence that sets up this egalitarian atmosphere where everyone has a short but equal opportunity to defend or attack each other, free from all other hegemonic tags and stamps. This carnivalesque mood also helps to present violence in this vibrant and exciting way. Thallumaala, starring Tovino Thomas, director Khalid Rahman, the recent can be included in this genre in such a broad sense. 

In spite of this, critiquing Thallumaala as another action/brawl movie doesn’t do it justice. The movie, because of its exciting and vibrant carnivalesque atmosphere, might seem like just a movie about street brawling. Above all the colors and beats, Thallumaala is a brilliant attempt to represent the Islamic ethics of violence. It is only natural that the politics of the writers bleed into the movie, in this case, the writer has clearly pointed out the politics or rather the ethics (are they different?) of the movie: “Sama Gama, Sama Garima” meaning “Equal Pride, Equal Dignity”. These four words represent (in heavily compressed terms) the Islamic ethics of violence and tolerance.

Even the movie begins with a Hadith of the prophet that preaches against unnecessary violence, setting the ethical tone for the whole movie, the Hadith quoted by the Moulvi at the beginning of the movie is: Abu Hurairah reported: Messenger of Allah said, “The strong man is not the one who wrestles, but the strong man is in fact the one who controls himself in a fit of rage.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]. Even while presenting violence in such an exciting manner, the movie clearly defines the ethical line that the viewers have to take into mind watching this movie.

In the brawl that takes place outside the mosque, Wazim (Tovino) is seen to be pulled (literally) away from the fight by a strong man amongst the attendees at the mosque, and subsequently gently reminded by the Moulvi about fighting, who proceeds to make a truce between Wazim and Jamshy (Luqman). The first fight and the subsequent advice guide the gang about what to fight against and when. The movie is filled with fights for dignity, fights against injustices, and reckless acts of violence.

The instances of fighting a guy who was beating up his own mother and giving him lessons on how to respect parents are the result of this Islamic ethics. The brawl between the guy who disrespected Wazim at the theatre by taking off Wazim’s mundu happens because self-respect and dignity are important aspects of a Muslim’s identity and ideology, even the central brawl between Wazim’s and Reji’s (Shine Tom Chacko) friends happens because the latter had disrespected and beaten up the former needlessly.

The movie doesn’t promote needless or reckless violence, this is evident to anyone watching the movie, with regards to reckless violence, the movie has to be read in light of the first Hadith, one should be patient, whenever it’s necessary. The movie can not be called Islamic, but it explains the basic concepts of the violence present through Islamic ethics. If anyone feels like fighting after watching the movie, it is because the movie empowers the audience to stand up and fight for their dignity and stand up for what’s right.

But needless to say that on the part of the characters, they are neither perfect nor are their actions overtly based on their knowledge of Islam. Rather this Islamicity or Muslimness in their lives and actions are a part of the everyday Muslimness or Lived Islam that they live with. These are Muslims who sin, as seen when Jamshid or Wazim drinks alcohol (they were also beautifully reminded about the transience of the Dunya and the eternal enjoyment of Jannah by their friend Sathar played by Swathi) but their everyday ethics is formed as a result of their Muslimness. This is evident when Jamshi is sending off a cattle that he had taken care of to be slaughtered, he buys honey-filled candy for the cattle, and asks the driver to not talk about the slaughter in front of the cattle as it will ‘hurt the cattle’s emotions and make it sad (This scene is also a powerful reversal of the cruel Mappila butcher that had haunted Malayalam cinema). It is a result of this everyday Islam that gives them these notions of self-respect, dignity, and kindness. There’s a saying that is related to Imam Gazzali: “A person will always interpret everything he hears according to the light which dominates his heart”. It is Islam that dominates their hearts and it is in this light of Islam that they do things. We can’t call them perfect Muslims (at least on the outside) based on their actions, however, it is this light in their hearts that guides them. 

Violence is a reality, from street brawls to International wars, they all start when someone’s pride and ego lead them to do injustice against someone else, removing their right to equal pride and ego. History has taught us that the question of violence cannot be answered with the answer of nonviolence. As Malcolm X says: Power only fears more power. Until the slogans of “Equal Pride and Equal Dignity” are fulfilled the attack on another’s pride continues. Ergo, street brawls aren’t just street brawls. Violence is a reality and resistance is the answer. 

Sama Gama Sama Garima  (Equal Pride, Equal Dignity)

Zaki Hamdan is an English Literature student at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi