Toms: The Man Behind Kerala's Beloved Mischief Makers

Johny ML
28/04/2016

At the attic of Ravi Maman's house in our village, his son told me that there was a hidden treasure. A landlord's son, Ravi Maman was a literary scholar who collected books and magazines. It was in 1980. We decided to sneak into the attic to see the treasure trove (we actually knew what we were looking for.) It was nothing but hundreds of old copies of the Malayala Manorama weekly. Sitting in the hot and humid attic, for hours together we read the last page of the weekly where the graphic narrative called 'Bobanum Moliyum' was published. The maker of this legendary cartoon was V.T.Thomas, popularly known as Toms (1929-2016). The history of these quick-witted, mischievous and extremely lovable characters, Boban and Molly, is intricately connected with the popular cultural understanding of the Malayalee. It was in Ravi Maman's attic that we found out that Boban, Molly and Motta had previously been lean, thin and tall figures before becoming a little bit plump and short.

The creator of 'Bobanum Moliyum' passed away last night. There will be imitations of Bobanum Moliym, but never the original. There was a time when the literary Malayalee, irrespective of gender and age, eagerly looked forward to getting a glance of the authors they adored. Stiff, brooding and romantic in their posture, intellectual writers like M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Kesavadev, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, N.V.Krishna Warrier, Kuttikrishna Marar, S.K.Pottekkatt, M.V.Devan and so on peered at the readers. But they were also looking for popular writers who made their lazy afternoons rich, ticklish, imaginative and mildly erotic. Muttatthu Varkey, Kanam E.J. and Kottayam Pushpanath were the writers who hid themselves behind their names, resisting their images to be proliferated among the readers. Toms was one among them people craved to see in human form but couldn't for so many years.

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Toms

Toms was taking many incarnations through his characters. At times he was the jobless advocate and sometimes he was as wise as Uppayi Mapla. Then he was Chettan, the panchayat president, and most of the time he was Boban and Molly. But finally in 1987, we all got to see how Toms looked like. At that time he wasn't laughing, though his perennial sense of humor hadn't waned. 'Bobanum Moliyum' had appeared for almost quarter of a century in the Malayala Manorama weekly where Toms was an assistant editor. His cartoon strip changed the way people read a magazine. Instead of opening the weekly from its front, readers started opening it from the back cover to see 'Bobanum Moliyum' first. After his retirement in 1987, Toms started publishing the legendary comic strip in Kalakaumudi published from Thiruvananthapuram. However, the organization that Toms had served for three decades took him to court for breaching the copyright. Though the court ruled in favor of Manorama, the publication subsequently let Toms continue drawing the characters. The cartoonist then started publishing his own 'Toms Magazine' where Bobanum Moliyum reappeared along with a series of other cartoon books developed out of characters like Appi Hippy and Unnikkuttan, a precursor of the present day Tintu Mon.

A cursory search would reveal that Bobanum Moliyum has got many mediatic incarnations. They are now available in both print and animated versions, though lacking in the wit and innocence of the original cartoon strip. Perhaps, Toms himself was the reason for the degeneration of his own cartoonish witticism. In order to prove his stance and worth, Toms went on to start his magazine by early 1990s, a time that marked the opening of the Indian economy. As the print media was not considerably affected by the onslaught of the debate television and Internet at that point of time, Toms could establish himself in the industry. But the shift in the platform and the efforts to survive as a creator, printer, publisher and even distributor of an exclusive comic magazine were quite taxing for Toms and his creative sap started dwindling.

The other cartoon strips that came up in late 60s and early 70s following the success of Bobanum Moliyum, like Lalu Leela (Manorajyam), Pachuvum Kovalanum (Janayugam), Kesuman and so on had brought the aesthetical parameters a few notches down by mixing sex and vulgarity in the acts and speeches of the characters. Though Toms didn't resort to cheap jokes to survive in the market, the shift in the interface and outsourcing of animators for his franchise nullified the aesthetic finesse of Bobanum Moliyum. In the meanwhile, Malayala Manorama could score a few brownie points over Toms by introducing Yesudasan’s 'Mrs. Nair' in their exclusive women’s magazine 'Vanitha', though the cartoon strip was a bit 'adults only.'

 

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Bobanum Moliyum was an exclusive print media cartoon strip. It was something that stood between a graphic novel with a continuous narrative and the same with episodic quality and tremendous amount of autonomy. G.Aravindan’s 'Cheriyalokavum Valiya Manushyarum,' the first graphic novel in Malayalam (perhaps in India itself) was started a year after Toms commenced his *Bobanum Moliym. While Toms stuck to episodic narrative, maintaining autonomy to each episode, Aravindan, thanks to his ideas as a future film maker, set the graphic novel in a continuous narrative where it showed the coming of age of Ramu, the protagonist, in the post-Independence India. We could say, Toms was of VKN School, in which we see a tremendous activation of verbal and gestural situations in order to eke out laughter (Papa tells Boban and Molly to go to the Panchayat Office and 'karam kettuka' – pay the tax. They go there, literally fold their hands and come back- karam kettuka means folding hands) and Aravindan was of Vijayan school, where everything is philosophical and existential. E.P.Unny also belongs to the latter school of graphic novels. Bill Waterson was yet to happen with his Calvin and Hobbs in 1985. Toms had almost finished his career with Manorama by then. The strange relationship, though very earthy, between the animals and the children can be seen in Toms's work too. Each movement of the siblings is corresponded by a similar action of the dog in the frame!

Change in the interface had nullified the effect of Bobanum Moliyum as a comic strip. The poorly animated version of Bobanum Moliyum and the absolutely unimaginative dubbing styles, turned away children, who moved closer to other animated characters like Shin Chan, Doremon, Bal Ganesh and Bal Hanuman. Something similar had already happened in 1971 when J. Sasikumar directed a movie with the title 'Bobanum Moliyum'. The readers of the strip refused to accept the film mainly because the kind of ingenuity the cartoon characters showed in the limited columns was found pathetically failing in the prolonged film frames. Despite the film's disaster, Toms and his beloved characters survived as he wasn't directly involved in the making of the film.

Toms could've retired and authored exclusive graphic novels for a wider public. The course of action he chose was that of a competition with a publishing giant and he proved he was no David. May his soul rest in peace.