'Abhiyum Naanum': Revisiting Trisha-Prakash Raj's rare film on dad-daughter dynamic

In #WatchWithTNM, we revisit a film that captures the soft corner that many fathers have for their daughters, even if they might be tyrants otherwise.
Actors Trisha and Prakash Raj in 'Abhiyum Naanum'
Actors Trisha and Prakash Raj in 'Abhiyum Naanum'
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Abhiyum Naanum was released in 2008, and I watched the film in a theatre with my father. He was reduced to a puddle of tears by the end of it, though I was laughing for most part of the film. I found Raghuram's (Prakash Raj) helicopter parenting to be similar to my father's extreme paranoia about my welfare. Abhi's (Trisha) irritation with her father's constant worrying was something I could completely relate to -- like her, I too desired independence, I wanted to be recognised as a person who was capable of taking care of herself.

Back then, I did not know what it is to be a parent. I did not know what it meant to bring a life into this world, the enormous responsibility that comes with it and the bittersweet joy of watching that child, so dependent on you at first, breaking away and becoming her own person. I know better now.

Directed by Radha Mohan and written by CP Narayanan and R Subramanian, Abhiyum Naanum begins in idyllic Ooty where Raghuram watches a young father (Prithviraj) playing at the park with his little daughter. When the two of them end up chatting, Raghuram recalls his own evolution as a father. From the time of Abhi's birth to the present.

Earlier that year, Prakash Raj played an overprotective father to Jayam Ravi in Santosh Subramaniam. But the father-son equation in that film is very different from what we see in Abhiyum Naanum. In the latter, there is tenderness, vulnerability and a certain helplessness in the father figure as he tries to grapple with his daughter's rebellions. He tries to exert his power as the 'head of the house' to keep things under control, but nobody is listening (including Ravi Shastri, the domestic worker and sidekick played by Elango Kumaravel). The film captures the soft corner that many fathers have for their daughters even if they might be tyrants otherwise. They find their long-held patriarchal ideas crumbling in the face of the affection that they have towards their girls.

When we included Abhiyum Naanum in the #WatchWithTNM Twitter poll for heroine-centric movies, some wondered if this film wasn't more about the father than the daughter. It's definitely a valid question. Abhiyum Naanum is about the father-daughter relationship and it is told from the father's perspective. But to me, the film qualifies because Abhi is many things in the narrative -- she's a daughter, she's a lover, she has ambitions, she knows what she's doing. It is Raghuram who is defined in relation to the female character -- as a father. This is a reversal of what we're used to seeing on screen, where the female characters are mostly defined in relation to the male protagonist and he's the one who is in control. In Abhiyum Naanum, Raghuram is who he is because of who Abhi is.

She throws surprises along his way. She teaches him to loosen up. She takes his advice when she agrees with it but disregards it if she doesn't. Though their personalities couldn't be more different, he comes around every time because of his love for her. And he finds that his daughter was right after all.

Abhiyum Naanum is one of the few Tamil films I've watched where the female lead isn't projected as an object of desire. Abhi's romance with Jogi (Ganesh Venkatraman) is a plot point, though her character doesn't acquire value because he is interested in her. This, despite Abhi being played by Trisha, a mainstream actor who's known to do glamorous roles. I also found the movie to be unique among heroine-centric films because Abhi isn't an "inspirational" woman. She comes across as a perfectly ordinary young person with quirks of personality. She's at the heart of the story but she didn't have to do anything remarkable to deserve her place there.

The sharp-tongued mother Anu, played by Aishwarya, is just as delightfully real as Raghuram. I saw my mother in her when watching the film for the first time and now I see myself. Anu too deeply loves Abhi but she's a practical parent who knows where to draw the line. While Raghuram finds it difficult to accept that Abhi is growing up rapidly, it is Anu who pulls him back from being too overbearing. She admonishes Abhi when required but reorients herself to the changing mother-daughter relationship as Abhi grows into adulthood. It's a dynamic seen in many homes but is rarely represented on screen.

Though Raghuram is forever trying to protect Abhi from every possible 'danger,’ he is unable to predict or control the future. One of those 'dangers' is Joginder Singh (Ganesh Venkatraman), Abhi's Punjabi boyfriend. The airport scene when Raghuram sees Jogi for the first time and is utterly shocked, is still as hilarious as ever. The cultural differences lead to some 'Hindi nagi maalom' type comedy that's always a hit with the Tamil audience -- rajma and Rajamma, for instance. To make Raghuram accept Jogi, however, Radha Mohan injects some unnecessary sentimentalism which the script could have done without. The film, which is mostly realistic till that point, takes a melodramatic turn that somewhat dilutes its impact.

In retrospect, Abhiyum Naanum becomes too focused on Abhi's marriage and the fact that she's "going away" with another man. But, for a film that's more than a decade old, its characterisation of Abhi as a young woman who makes her own choices, is still worth appreciating. She speaks her mind, she isn't afraid of going against the norms. Perhaps if it had been made in the year 2020, the conflict would have been about Abhi wanting to take up a 'risky' career or deciding not to get married at all. One can always hope.

Four years before Abhiyum Naanum, Trisha and Prakash Raj acted together in Ghilli. But there, he was a lustful antagonist who was obsessed with her character, Dhanalakshmi. The film was a blockbuster and Prakash Raj's villainous 'Hi chellam' greeting and Trisha's trembling face are yet to be forgotten. Getting the audience to move past that and invest in the gently comic father-daughter relationship in Abhiyum Naanum is proof of their mettle as actors.

Abhiyum Naanum documents a journey that many of us make in life. It's ridiculously common yet feels unique to the person experiencing it. If I laughed for most of the film when I first watched it, I'm a puddle of tears when watching it now. And that's what makes the film precious.

Watch Abhiyum Naanum on YouTube here.

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