An Ode to the Insane Brawls in THALLUMAALA

A movie can’t succeed on fights alone. Then again…

Thallumaala literally translates to “Ballad of Brawls” and the movie more than lives up to that title. Structured as a series of episodes played out in nonchronological order, most every episode is in some way built around a fistfight of some kind. That being said, if you go in expecting nonstop action, you might be a bit baffled and/or frustrated. Overall the film’s narrative has more in common with a traditional romantic comedy than a typical action film, even if the winsome tale of a young man and young woman trying to make sense of their lives and hearts in an oversaturated Internet age keeps getting interrupted by flurries of fisticuffs.

Which, if we’re being honest, is something that other rom-coms could stand to incorporate more. Can you honestly say that When Harry Met Sally wouldn’t have been improved by Billy Crystal sporadically having to break off courting Meg Ryan so he could instead engage in wire-fu beatdowns? No, no you can’t. Thanks for not lying.

But there are two sequences in Thallumaala, one at the one-hour mark and one at the climax, where the rom-com elements go on ice so the film can instead luxuriate in the glory of watching many people beat the absolute living piss out of many other people in the most needlessly elaborate fashion imaginable. Even if the rest of Thallumaala was worthless (and it’s not! Movie’s excellent!) I would still be out here on my soapbox (imagine me on a soapbox) screaming through this megaphone (imagine me with a megaphone) that every action fan needs to plunk down on the couch and get a load of this wondrous cinematic lunacy.

Quick context! Thallumaala’s main character is Wazim (Tovino Thomas), a perfectly average, amiable but aimless young man, with a group of similarly amiable but aimless young buddies. The central spine of the film’s jumbled narrative is Wazim’s years-long romantic pursuit of popular vlogger Fathima, (Kalyani Priyadarshan) from their chance meeting to their various mixed connections to their final successful romance. Because of the film’s nonchronological structure, we know almost from the start that Wazim does in fact win Fathima’s heart but that their wedding day will end in some kind of disaster. The nature of that disaster, however, isn’t totally clear until the film’s final stretch. But we do know that it involves some kind of fight.

As do many of the major moments of Wazim’s life. For you see, Wazim and his buddies may look, act, dress, and behave like your regular squad of rom-com ready schmucks, and they are in fact rom-com ready schmucks. But all of them can fight. Like, really fight. Like, “‘”physics are just a suggestion and pain is someone else’s problem” kind of fight. No explanation is ever given for why these doofuses can all bust out hyper-elaborate martial arts mayhem at a moment’s notice. And to be clear, none is needed. The movie’s vibrant color palette and kinetic style makes you feel right at home with cartoon physics even before the improbable action kicks in, and director Khalid Rahman strategically throttles up to the first big brawl over the course of the first hour so that when that level of truly unhinged destruction finally arrives, the brawl feels not only earned, but inevitable.

And to be clear, both of these sequences are brawls. Thallumaala’s first battle royale takes place in a packed movie theater, while its second takes place at a busy wedding. These fights are messy. They are chaotic. Even as our protagonists smash and punch through the center of the frame, dozens of bodies are in constant motion around them. Furniture is pulverized. Random items are used as weapons. Confetti and debris rain over the combatants.

The received wisdom of action sequences in films is that they should function as mini-narratives within the greater story, with discernible arcs even within the fight scene (rising/falling action, set-up/payoff, etc.). Look at the kitchen fight in The Raid 2, a prolonged set-piece with multiple clear phases and stages that allow the fight to feel like a contained, complete movie unto itself.

This is not that. Rather than feeling like a carefully choreographed duels, the brawls of Thallumaala are more like explosive sequences of sustained catharsis. The individual movements are less important than the collective ecstatic release when mounting tensions and convoluted narrative gameplaying finally hit their breaking point and everything goes up in (literal) flames.

Director Rahman and cinematographer Jimshi Khalid alternate between wide shots in which the camera whips around fighters doing elaborate strings of choreography and close-ups of fists colliding with faces, bodies smashing through walls, feet connecting, hard, with an opponent’s limbs. The brawls become montages of destruction, at times cutting to total non sequitur shots of fists striking faces or bodies smashing through chairs or walls. This isn’t martial combat, it’s a demolition derby with human beings doing the demolishing.

The effect is something that splits the difference between Tony Jaa and Jackass, whipping back and forth from elegance to reckless exuberance from second to second and shot to shot.

2022 was a banner year for action cinema, as fearless leader Ed Travis explicated in some detail with his annual action round-up. Go read that, and then go watch the films Ed talked about in his article. They uniformly rule, especially RRR.

But even in such an illustrious year for the genre, Thallumaala’s brawls still feel special. Because of the jumbled narrative structure, you spend so much time anticipating what these fights are going to look like that the final product has to be spectacular. And even with all that build-up, the fights exceed all expectations. They are joyous blasts of deranged imagination and energy, turning average dudes into gravity-defying badasses and everyday settings into staging grounds for godly combat.

These are the kind of fight scenes that leave you punch-drunk and giddy. And maybe, maybe, the next time you’re getting hassled or annoyed, you might just imagine yourself suddenly able to deliver the perfect flying kick to the side of some fool’s face.

Just so long as you don’t actually flying kick someone.

Unless they really have it coming.

Thallumaala is available on Netflix.

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