While mainstream Tamil cinema is becoming increasingly unoriginal in how it portrays love and romance, the web medium has allowed filmmakers to experiment and represent real life relationships with the kind of lightness and authenticity that we’re used to seeing only in Western sitcoms. Particularly when it comes to depicting urban relationships, the web medium is well ahead, juggling complexity with a refreshing non-judgmental tone.
Behind Closed Doors, a 12-episode series on streaming platform Viu India, is an illustration of this trend. With just two characters per episode, the series manages to capture different facets of relationships, cutting across gender, caste and class lines. The result is an interesting cocktail of experiences, which humanise characters who are generally never represented on the big screen, or are pushed to performing stereotypical roles.
Like the adolescent boy in Episode 6, who has beaten up someone because the latter was hanging out with the girl he loves. By giving him a mother who counsels him through sharing her own experiences of life and love, the script neither glorifies his actions nor turns him into a stereotypical stalker. A portrait of Ambedkar looms large on the wall, as she tells her angry son that she has a union meeting to go for the next day – quite effectively establishing her politics.
Or the boyfriend-girlfriend in Episode 8, who have to each do their crummy jobs, but steal a moment to have a proper date at a place where the rich romance over expensive coffee. She’s taller than he is, makes a thousand rupees more than he does; he’s a motormouth who is uncomfortable with silences, and is slightly in awe of her command over English. And yet, their romance never looks awkward or forced.
The series also captures the way technology has changed relationships. In Episode 1, we’re taken through the progress and eventual end of a long distance relationship (and they split because the webcam gives away a secret). In Episode 10, a couple that fell in love online, gets to meet for the first time in real life. But while she assumes his consent and wants to get into bed immediately, he’s far more hesitant.
While technology helps lovers stay in touch across cities and even continents, it can also make them constantly distracted. In Episode 7, a husband who seems loving to begin with, turns into a violent monster as his parents call and tell him that they’re visiting. The problem? His wife has misplaced her thaali. Each time he gets a call from them, asking for directions or informing him about the traffic status, the tension goes up in the narrative, as he pushes his wife more and more, completely oblivious to her responses. In Episode 5, the new bride’s woman boss calls her at night and gives her work to do, while the groom’s father gives him instructions over the phone on not eating non-vegetarian food. Without the script having to spell it out, we know that the couple has had an intercaste marriage – and she is already resentful of being told how she should lead her life, while he is happy to be a conformist uttering white lies when required.
In Episode 3, where two men – a soon-to-be groom and his prospective father-in-law – drink together, we get a glimpse of how intertwined gender and caste oppression are. The young man appears to be liberal and progressive initially, but when the older man lets out a secret deliberately (if there’s a fish bone in your throat, you must remove it), he proves to be just as conservative.
In fact, quite a few of the episodes touch on male insecurity and the obsessive need to know if their partner has had physical relations with someone else previously (the guy in Episode 10 gladly announces his lack of experience though). In Episode 3, the two men are chatting in Erode, but the jealous boyfriend character is present in the very urbane Episode 2, too. Here, he is cool enough to plan a surprise party with his girlfriend’s best friend, a man. But he isn’t so cool enough as to not wonder if the two of them had ever had a fling together.
Episode 4 is about a couple trying to have a cordial divorce, but while she has made up her mind, he’s still wrapped up in his own sense of inadequacy. In fact, the women in the series, in contrast, appear more self-assured and practical than the male characters, though they’re not all under the same “cool, independent” labels. When it comes to taking the lead for physical contact, too, the cocky, aggressive masculinity that we see in mainstream cinema is replaced by something more hesitant, more questioning, and more curious. But this does not take anything away from the urgency or intensity of physical intimacy – Episode 11 when two teenagers attempt to make out for the very first time offers a sense of sweet nostalgia, but the script doesn’t turn saccharine.
Episode 9 offers a comfortable friendship between man and woman, the two of them sitting together and forming tunes, in Sippi irukkuthu muththum irukkuthu style. Not every enjoyable interaction needs to lead to something more, it says. You can just enjoy the moment, and the company of the person, irrespective of their gender, even if the possibilities are present.
The final episode, No 12, is based on one of those itchy relationship problems – it doesn’t seem big enough to call the whole thing off, but it constantly grates on your nerves. A young woman needs to pee and her boyfriend’s toilet is untidy. In fact, he’s the slovenly sort and she cannot stand it. Where do they go from here?
If one must find fault, it is that all the episodes are about heterosexual love, and same sex relationships don’t feature anywhere. There’s also nothing on the love and sexual tension between older people – although the mother in Episode 6 does assert to her son that she has her own likes and dislikes when it comes to men. Given the flexibility of the episodic structure, some of these stories too could have found their place in the series.
Each episode is between 10 to 15 minutes long, with the language alternating between Tamil and English. Valentine’s Day is just round the corner and TV must be full of melodramatic love sagas – if you prefer something closer home but also closer to reality, tune in to Behind Closed Doors and thank us later.
Cast and crew credits:
Behind Closed Doors: Show created by Bhargav Prasad, produced by Vignesh Balaji
Episode 1: S P L I T, direction: Naveen Kumar MN, writing: Bhargav Prasad, cinematography: Sathya Narain, music: Krishna Saurabh Surampalli, editing: Dorai Prakash S A, cast: Mrithula Chetlur Kiran Naig
Episode 2: Cantilever, direction: Bhargav Prasad, writing: Harish Rajagopal, cinematography: Sandeep, music: Siennor, editing: Ashwin Arvind, cast: Abhishek Joseph George, Rahul Sridhar, Rashmi Panigrahi
Episode 3: 4 Rounds, direction: Rakesh Lenin, writing: Rakesh Lenin and Rajagopalan Ganesan, cinematography by Aravind Swaminathan, music: Saran Raghavan, editing: Prakash Karunanithi, cast: Marimuthu, Rishikanth Rajendran
Episode 4: Cardboards, direction: Naveen Kumar M N, writing: Rajiv Rajaram, cinematography: Dinesh Purushothaman, music: Krishna Saurabh Surampalli, editing: Dorai Prakash S A, cast: Kavya, Vatsan Natarajan
Episode 5: Honeymooners, direction: Bhargav Prasad, writing: Bhargav Prasad, cinematography: Sandeep, music: Siennor, editing: Dorai Prakash SA, cast: Vineeth Sundaram, Vinithra Menon
Episode 6: Wisdom Parte, direction: Naveen Kumar M N, writing: Samyukhta PC, cinematography: Sathya Narain, music: Krishna Saurabh Surampalli, editing: Dorai Prakash S A, cast: Mani Raj, Janaki Suresh
Episode 7: Mangalagaram, direction: Rakesh Lenin, writing: Rakesh Lenin and Rajagopalan Ganesan, music: Saran Raghavan, cinematography and editing: V.S. Prabanchan, cast: Deepthi, Arjun Chidambaram
Episode 8: Kannadi Kadhavirkulle, direction: Rakesh Lenin, writing: Rakesh Lenin and Rajagopalan Ganesan, music by Saran Raghavan, cinematography: Vedaraman, editing: V S Pranbanchan, cast: Anusha Prabhu, Rajagopalan Ganesan
Episode 9: Isayil Thodangudhamma, direction: Bhargav Prasad, writing: Bhargav Prasad and Siennor, cinematography: Sandeep, music: Siennor, editing: Dorai Prakash SA, cast: Amrutha Srinivasan, Siennor
Episode 10: In Pursuit Of, direction: Naveen Kumar M N, writing: Sukanya Umesh, cinematography: Dinesh Purushothaman, music: Krishna Saurabh Surampalli, editing: Ashwin Arvind, cast: Ashwani Mohanlal, Kiran Keshav
Episode 11: First Kiss, direction: Bhargav Prasad, writing: Bhargav Prasad, cinematography: Sandeep, music: Siennor, editing: Dorai Prakash SA, cast: Vaishwath Shankar, Ananya Ramprasad
Episode 12: Urgent One Bathroom, direction: Naveen Kumar M N, writing: Bala Kumaran, cinematography: Sathya Narain, music: Krishna Saurabh Surampalli, editing: Dorai Prakash S A, cast: Shalini Vijaykumar, Aravinth Sundar