Oru Kidaayin Karunai Manu

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Debutant writer-director Suresh Sangaiah’s Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu (“Mercy petition of a scapegoat”) follows a group of villagers setting out for their ancestral temple. One of them, Ramamurthy (Vidharth), has gotten married and it’s time his family sacrifices the goat they’ve been raising for years to carry out their vow. The extended family and other members of the community hire a lorry and start early. Following a mishap in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves with the dead body of a young man; they’re not sure whether they’ve killed him by accident or if he was dead already. After an entire day of confusion and half-measures, they call a lawyer they know (George Maryan), who comes to the spot to sort things out. Things, however, spiral out of control and the residents of the nearby village discover the truth behind the disappearance of one of their own. Shot with elements borrowed from the international arthouse style, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu makes compelling interventions into the conventions of the “village film”.

The protagonist of Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu is not any particular character but the community – a great rarity in fiction in general. The first portion of the film describes this community as it gets ready for the road trip. We witness the preparation process in a mosaic-like fashion: the hiring of accompanying personnel, the renting of the lorry, the various jokes, arguments and suggestions circling within subgroups and the departure before daybreak,when the entire group assembles prim and proper. The thread that connects these different scenes is the notion of community itself. The individual characters have no significance in this scheme of things, each being a caricature with one or two very humorous tics. The result is a flat canvas full of innumerable, uniformly attention-catching incidents comparable to Bruegel’s peasant paintings.

The portrait, however, isn’t all fun and games. We see the internal dynamics of the community, the rules that emerge to regulate relations within the group and squash dissent. As crisis strikes, we see fault lines emerge, but they are quickly attended to by the expedient hierarchy of the collective (organized along several axes, men-women, elderly-young, family-outsiders). When the lorry driver, or anyone else, threatens to leave, he is intimidated into groupthink. The Vidharth character is collectively cockblocked by the community till the end, but nevertheless maintains his new-groom privilege even when he’s at fault. His happiness is shared by all, as is his guilt. Whatever happens within the community stays within. Perhaps for the first time in Tamil cinema, we are dropped into Dogville (not gonna make the obvious joke here).

The abrupt shift that occurs half-an-hour into the film reorients the converging point of the narrative from the goat’s sacrifice to the resolution of the dead man problem. The death that the community was preparing for is replaced by another one that’s directed inward. The sacrificial goat now has to be a person who takes the fall for the well-being of the community. As the men try to dig a hole for the corpse using cooking utensils, the rest of the group settles down at a deserted temple and sets up a stopgap kitchen in the dark, life and death feeding into each other. The shift is also reminiscent of Luis Buñuel in that it parachutes an old world steeped in its own conventions, prejudices and hypocrisies into a situation it’s fundamentally unprepared for. (Had Buñuel made this film, he would’ve had the group consume the dead body, but Sangaiah’s view of the community is too ambivalent for such radical gestures.)

Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu has for its central line the movement of the group from tradition to modernity. The group starts from the village and ends at the courthouse. Legends, myths and half-truths abound within the community. The film opens with photographs from village temples: idols of village gods who were perhaps once men, totems and talismans to be used in rituals, miniature cradles and ribbons tied to trees as vows. On the soundtrack is a folk ballad about an animal killing by the villagers – real or collectively-accepted like everything else here. As the preparations for the function are on, the goat gets its own apocryphal history by word of mouth. The characters are addressed by nicknames that have unsaid stories behind them. We can’t tell legend from fact because one constantly becomes the other. Though there are cell phones, the villagers’ contact with modernity as a knowledge system comes when they have to call the lawyer and the doctor to sort out their issue. When the truth is out, cohabitants of the dead man get into an armed skirmish with them, until the police intervenes in this medieval justice. The liberation of the sacrificial goat and the chicken, in this regard, coincides with the community’s final submission to modern law, which does not deal in half-truths. Though the group is acquitted, they never know the truth, for what they have seen is truth enough for them.

Remains the goat, the mute witness to the entire drama. It’s treated as property and objectified by the community, but the filmmaker endows it with sentience with several point-of-view shots. Its gaze, however, is neutral, incapable of ascribing moral value to the villagers’ actions. Like the donkey from Agraharathil Kazhuthai, it is located at the eye of the storm around which the human community polarizes and fights it out. Its own existential threat is ignored as the film shifts gears, making it somewhat of a superfluous appendage. The world remains a mystery to the goat, just like many things in the film are to the viewer. In this, the animal perhaps shares the filmmaker’s vision of the universe, a morally neutral space with an internal harmony, where one sacrifice is swapped for another, a lost son replaced by another. There’s no evidence that the filmmaker’s desire to keep the answers from us – the nature of the death, the lawyer’s intentions, the perception of the goat – stems from a coherent philosophical position, but it makes for a welcome ambiguity.

Kurangu Bommai

A nondescript don in inner Tamil Nadu has his hands on a precious idol and wants to smuggle it to Chennai. Acting as his courier is the naïve Sundaram (Bharathiraja), who is supposed to hand over the idol to the cricket-obsessed Sekar (Elango Kumaravel). Sekar decides to appropriate the idol and have Sundaram take the fall for it. Sundaram’s son Kathir (Vidharth), whom Sundaram believes to be employed as an engineer, makes his living in Chennai as a taxi driver. One day, Kathir finds a pickpocket making away with a man’s bag, apparently valuable, and retrieves it after a chase. But the man’s gone and Kathir decides to surrender the bag to the police. The bag, however, has a mind of its own and decides to go from one pair of hands to another. Writer-director Nithilan’s debut work, Kurangu Bommai (“Monkey picture”, referring to the image printed on the bag) crisscrosses the lives of its seven or eight central characters over the possession of the idol and, while always interesting, the result is less than illuminating.

A comparison of the film to Maanagaram is unavoidable, but also unflattering. Where Maanagaram (as do some other hyperlink films) embodies a specific conception of the metropolis and its residents, Kurangu Bommai can only imagine Chennai as a village where the characters bump into each other on cue. The film flattens its social landscape, its characters abstractions floating in an unmarked narrative space. The film’s story could take place anywhere or nowhere – with any group of characters – and it so happens that it’s in Chennai. The hero, a nonentity, posts a picture of the bag he has on Facebook, and the entire city seems to be on it. The issue here is not the implausibility, but the distorted idea of what connects the inhabitants of a city. The hero is supposed to be a driver, but outside of an opening montage, we never see him at work though he always appears in uniform. He’s given this profession as a screenwriting formality. He takes to extreme violence at the push of a button, people are killed and bodies disposed of without repercussions, because the director is thinking in terms of templates in order to arrive at the sucker punch he wants to deliver at the end.

If Kurangu Bommai manages to hold the attention despite its numerous contrivances, psychological inconsistency and lazy scene detailing, it’s thanks to its overall construction. The film shuttles between two timelines that unfold linearly and have a certain overlap. The first thread is piloted by Bharathiraja as he travels to Chennai to hand over the statue to contacts. The second one is led by Vidharth and his efforts to return the bag to its owner. The weaving of these two story-threads creates a series of changing questions in the viewer’s mind, first related to the destination of the bag with the statue, then to Bharathiraja’s fate, the discovery of his body and finally the form of revenge the hero will exact. The film shifts from one story to another at points calculated for effect. Some work, some don’t: the emotional climax the film’s been building towards, with Bharathiraja’s disappearance at the focus, occurs at a point earlier than its ideal location. Individual sequences, in turn, are over-edited, betraying an insecurity towards the script and the actors. Despite the softness he brings, Bharathiraja is too intelligent a public figure to pass as the slow-witted Sundaram. It’s Vidharth, doing less once again, who is more convincing.

Kuttrame Thandanai

Kuttrame Thandanai (“crime is punishment”), Manikandan’s explosive follow-up to Kaaka Muttai (2015), is a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller that takes a unique medical condition and draws out its narrative, cinematic, metaphorical and philosophical possibilities. Ravi (Vidharth) suffers from tunnel vision: his visual field is restricted to a small iris. He lives in a sparsely-furnished studio opening to the courtyard of his run-down apartment complex. He spends his mornings on the balcony observing his neighbours, especially a young girl downstairs. He learns that he is losing vision fast and needs to be operated – a fact that he can reveal to few people without fallout. After a day of disappointments, Ravi returns home to witness unusual happenings at the complex. He decides to get directly involved.

Ravi’s character is fleshed out with a compassion free of sympathy or pathos and neither is the world around him populated with disagreeable specimen. Vidharth portrays the character without any distinguishing tic or voice modulation. His Ravi is a man without a history, completely in the present, seeking to find his ethical code through the events that present themselves to him. There’s an inner life to him that is fittingly not offered to the audience. (For better or worse, the film leaves a whole range of situations unexploited. Mysskin, for instance, would’ve had an entire action set-piece revolving around the protagonist’s limitation. Or a tense cat-and-mouse game between Ravi and the lawyers he’s bargaining with.) There’s an endearing character, played by Nasser, who sees a son figure in Ravi but interacts with him with a calculated caution so as to not have another heartbreak. In a lesser film, this moral centre of the film would double as commentary and judgment. Here he simply is another cog in the alienation-inducing machine that is the city.

The initial portion of Kuttrame Thandanai is constructed around Ravi’s everyday routine – his difficult commute on bike to work, his time at the office where a co-worker has a crush on him, his client visits and his sessions at the hospital – and emphasizes the fundamental inhumanity of our urban spaces without putting too fine a point on it. The residents at the complex keep to themselves, not wanting to get mixed up in events outside home, even if at the cost of someone’s life. Manikandan finds an apt visual rhyme between Ravi’s vision and the peephole of apartment doors, the partial knowledge that results paralleling the film’s development. Ravi’s medical condition – of being able to see only what he wants – therefore becomes a particular manifestation of a general social and epistemological condition.

Manikandan builds the film with direct sounds and a plethora of over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups, creating an intimate portrait. At times, the film’s austere images cannot support Ilayaraja’s lush score, which announces itself every time it appears. Scenes at the apartment and Ravi’s office have a tangible presence that’s absent from most Tamil movies. And, yet, the script gives in to the temptation of a coup de theatre with a gratuitous and pat-sounding ending. It’s a decision that turns the film’s greatest strength to its shortcoming. Throughout the film, the audience is made to identify with Ravi’s perspective. At dozens of points in the film we have the shot combination “Ravi looking at things + reverse shot of what he sees through an iris + shot of Ravi looking again”. This couples the viewer tightly to Ravi’s experience of events, and there are very few scenes where Ravi is not a participant. Given this exclusivity the viewer enjoys, the film’s eliding of a crucial bit of information only to use it for a grand revelation is maddening. The ending catapults the film to a moral plane higher than Ravi’s, falsifying its own approach so far.

Aandavan Kattalai

When, in Aandavan Kattalai (“god’s decree”), the usual set of disclaimers and warnings are followed a message about avoiding middlemen, one expects a film that’s too clever by half. But no, Manikandan’s third feature actually takes that message seriously and gives form to it in various social-minded scenarios that are strung together to form the film’s plot. Hassled by debtors in their village, Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi) and Pandi (Yogi Babu) decide to go to England with fake documents, masquerade as refugees from Sri Lanka and benefit from government welfare. Gandhi gets his visa application rejected and finds work with a theatre group in the city to avoid going back to his village. Thriving under the mentorship of the theatre director (Nasser), he decides to sort out his papers and get back to straight ways. There’s one problem: his fudged passport mentions a one-in-a-million name as his wife.

What strikes right away is how light-footed the writing is. Right after a set of idyllic establishment shots (the paradise lost to the rest of the film), Gandhi gets the directive from a friend to go west. No voice-overs, no songs, no setting up of the protagonist as the village hero; just an opportunity to kick off the picaresque adventure. The screenplay proceeds linearly – no flashbacks or parallel threads – and rarely where one expects it to go. There are no villains, no scores settled, even though there are insults and betrayals. The tone is consistently comical, but it doesn’t collapse into farce and caricature as much as Kaaka Muttai did. The characters are written around actor’s limitations – Vijay Sethupathi, Yogi Babu essentially reprise their stock roles – and even the secondary characters are given idiosyncrasies that smoothen the scenes they are in.

The film is structured as a romantic comedy couched within a comedy of migration and held together a series of satirical takes on what the writers perceive to be social ills of our time:  discrimination in housing, illegal emigration, increasing divorce rates, lack of security for women, the plague of middlemen in bureaucratic processes. The spirit of the opening warning against middlemen pervades the entire film: wherever Gandhi seeks out go-betweens to sort things out – the fake emigration agent, the passport office broker, the real estate agent, the marriage counsellors, even his friend who mediates between him and the heroine – things take a turn for the worse. Far from the tight drama and carefully-delineated world of Kuttrame Thandanai, Aandavan Kattalai is visually flat and full of contrivances, as isn’t unusual for a comedy. But the contrivances are so intricately mounted, full of symmetries and rhymes that it’s hard to imagine the film otherwise: the ingenious rom-com idea of divorce as the beginning of a romance, the dual figures of Pandi and Nesan, the apartment search that bookends the film in different ways, the opposed moral orientations of the protagonist in the two sections of the film with a heart-warming, theme-encapsulating inflection point where the theatre director hires Gandhi on faith at a single glance.