You know that line spiritual gurus give you about money? That it can't buy you peace of mind? I knew that to be patently untrue the day my daughter was born. For a parent, a wad of cash is often what stands in the way of insulating your child from the dangers of the world. Some of us have it, many of us don't.
Gopi Nainar's Aramm, starring Nayanthara in the lead role, is about the have-nots. Appearing in exactly two costumes in the entire film – if you can call her sober sarees as costumes – is south India's highest paid woman actor. Till the interval point, we only see her in a handful of scenes. She's there in the margins, watching, trying to understand the plight of the people of her district, just as we are, in our seats.
The story belongs to a family of four – mother (Sunu Lakshmi), father (Ramachandran Durairaj) and their two children (one of whom is the impish Ramesh of Kaaka Muttai, now all grown up). Gopi does not hurry the film along or turn it into a star vehicle.
Despite the short runtime of a little over 2 hours, the camera lingers to give us a real sense of what this family is like. Their dreams and their hopes. There's little money and sometimes, the parents have to choose between paying for their son's earache and their daughter's birthday cake. Overturning the strong "singakutty" son preference we see celebrated in Tamil cinema, these parents would rather buy that aspirational cake.
This is why what follows in the film punches us in the gut.
Director Gopi weaves a delicate web of moments that come together as the film progresses. The young Muthu wants to be a swimmer, he can hold his breath underwater for a long time. Till the time his angry father, who is looking for him, gives up and leaves. You see this moment and buy it for what it is. But a few scenes later, we realise the father's thoughts were not quite what we assumed they were. In the second half of the film, the same moment takes on a lot more significance.
At an important point in the film, a group of Christians sing, "Yesu kai vida maatar" (Jesus will not leave your hand) and your heart quakes because you guess what's coming.
I wondered how Nayanthara would interpret District Collector Madhi. Would she underplay it? Go all out ruthless? Fill the screen with punch dialogues? She plays it straight and real. She's gentle in some scenes, stern in others. But here's what I loved about her performance – the vulnerability she brought to the character, despite the power she holds. Here's a hero who's willing to admit she doesn't really know if she's doing the right thing on screen, but does it anyway. A relief from the cocksure cardboard cutouts we've been fed, film after film.
The dialogues, for the large part, hold up. For instance, the men who 'Madam' Madhi in front of her, refer to her disparagingly as 'Andha ponnu' ('That girl') when she's out of earshot. The little girl who plays Dhansika made me weep with her concern that her mother would scold her if she wets her underwear – saying anything more would serve as a spoiler.
Nayanthara's lines sometimes verge on lecturing but this is forgivable because the script doesn't go overboard with it. The background score (Ghibran) which accompanies the few superstar moments in the film gave me goosebumps. How often do we get to see a woman star own the scene like this? Never mind, that was a rhetorical question.
The supporting cast (including Vinodhini Vaidyanathan) ably deliver realistic performances. I have seen a '90s Malayalam film with a similar premise but Aramm isn't quite the same. Unlike the Malayalam film, the tragedy here is rooted very much in the immediate social location of the characters.
The contrast, between rich India which sends rockets to space (the people of Kattur village can see the launch at Sriharikota) and poor India which doesn't have water to drink, isn't as skillfully portrayed as it was in Joker. You wish there was more subtlety and subtext but perhaps these films do need to be in-your-face to make the audience uncomfortable for at least a few hours.
Om Prakash's cinematography deserves a mention. The barren landscape of Kattur is as much a character in the film as the cast. From the cracked earth to the blue waters and the blackness of a pit, the camera succeeds in giving one a real sense of dread and hopelessness.
Aramm is not ambitious as a story. It's an episode from the life of a District Collector, a day in rural India. One that we've read about way too many times in the newspaper. But it is ambitious as a film for what it wants to say and how it has chosen to say it. After the film was over, a colleague asked me if the theatre I watched it in had subtitles. For the life of me, I couldn't remember. I was too busy crying to notice.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.