Each short film in the three-part anthology Addham (Mirror) begins with the same line appearing on the screen — ‘Morality is a changing goalpost’. The films, which premiered on October 16 on Aha, set out to address themes of moral conflict, ethical dilemmas and self-reflection by characters going through major internal strife. In attempting this in less than 20 minutes per film, they are unfortunately unable to escape cliches of brooding, pontificating characters.
The first film, The Road That Never Ends, directed by Sarjun KM, manages to avoid this to some extent. A truck driver (Jayaprakash) agrees to give a lift to a young boy (M Praveen) who is running away from home and is ambitious about earning well in the city before returning to his abusive father. The film allows us to empathise with its characters and their choices without theorising them too much, unlike the other two films. It manages to leave the viewer with a sinking feeling, completely altering our perception of each character and almost making us feel guilty for our initial assumptions. But this film has other problems (involving spoilers, which will be discussed in a bit).
Each film tries to set up a certain reality before challenging the audiences’ perception with a big twist, making us step back and reassess our judgement of the characters so far. Although it’s an interesting premise, the other two films disappoint for multiple reasons.
One of the most tiresome things about this Telugu web series, for a Telugu viewer, is its Telugu. Most of the characters speak the language like they don’t know it. And most of the lines sound like they were first written in English and then put through Google Translate. Even Telugu speakers might need subtitles to make sense of the conversations in the second film, Crossroads, which often sound like a dubbed television commercial.
Crossroads, directed by Bharath Neelakantan, tells the story of a man in a bad marriage (Prasanna), vexed with his “nagging wife” (Abhirami Venkatachalam). As she makes him feel emasculated, he decides to hire an elite sex worker to feel better about himself. He meets Swetha (Dr Pavithrah Marimuthu) at a hotel, and a convoluted conversation with her makes him feel worthy of love again.
The ‘twist’ is rather predictable. But why this film really fails is the awfully written women. Of the two women, one is the crazy-shrill-nagging wife, and the other is a mellow version of a manic pixie dream girl. Swetha’s character only serves to cheer the depressed husband, to undo the emasculation he has suffered from his wife and to make him feel likeable. She calls him “attractive, affectionate, sensitive, charming,” all qualities that the audience sadly never gets to witness.
The last film, titled The Unwhisperable Secret, is directed by Siva Ananth, who has written all three stories. A mental health counsellor (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) is enraged by a client’s (Kishore) confession of a crime, which brings back memories of past trauma. The counsellor is torn between reporting his crime and respecting their code of confidentiality. As she gets to know more about the client, she sees him differently. She helps him deal with his guilt by suggesting that he must change how he sees the ambiguous reality of his past while dealing with her own trauma in a similar way.
The film seems well-intentioned until you hear the client tell the counsellor that she reminds him of his mother.
The wife of the truck driver in The Road That Never Ends, played by Rohini, is probably the best-written character among all the women in the series. But after watching the other two episodes, and seeing the ‘immoral’ acts attributed to each character, some of the choices made in the first film stand out.
At first, the poverty of the characters seems like it might have partly been an aesthetic choice, in pursuit of the ‘gritty’, ‘realist’ tone of many other web series. The truck driver is the only character in the entire series who says swear words, for instance. Seeing Jayaprakash, who usually plays upper middle-class roles, in the role of a truck driver seems a bit incongruous at first.
Director Sarjun has said that this was a deliberate choice, in order to “break the stereotype.” But there are other stereotypes that the writing seems to have imbibed, consciously or otherwise.
The truck driver is shown talking to sex workers in a way that suggests that he often visits them. The scene might have been written as a distraction from later events. But the client in The Unwhisperable Secret also mentions truck drivers and sex workers as if they’re inseparable entities and a fixture on highways.
All the characters in the series, except the truck driver, make or consider making morally ambiguous choices (theft, infidelity, the counsellor’s dilemma over reporting her client’s confession to police).
Kishore, the counsellor’s client, confesses to having killed a woman in a hit-and-run accident while driving in a drunken state. But the character is given a sympathetic backstory, and there is ambiguity over whether the woman died, which leaves room for uncertainty and redemption.
The one unforgivable crime is ascribed to the truck driver, who is revealed to be a paedophile. His wife, who is aware of her husband’s crimes, never reports them. Although she hates him and regrets her silence, even in his death, she makes sure no one finds out (to protect her mother-in-law, and possibly her own reputation).
In retrospect, the casting makes one wonder if an actor usually seen in middle-class roles was chosen to play the paedophile truck driver to make the reveal more surprising. When seen as a whole, the series makes us contemplate not just the characters’ and our own perspective over what’s right and wrong, but also the filmmakers’ position on morality, criminality and the social location of the characters.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.