Kallachirippu, the new web series presented by director Karthik Subbaraj which has released online on ZEE5, is a thriller involving the accidental killing of a husband by his wife (Amrutha Srinivasan) and her slow, painful descent into a moral cesspool. The content is for “mature” audiences and the F-word and its Tamil equivalent are liberally sprinkled across scenes -- and in at least one song (Episode 4 - Pallavarayan - Snicker Me Not).
When HBO began airing in the US, actors took pleasure in cussing; many still do. And, Roju, the writer-director of the show, puts to full use the liberties a web series offers -- quickly and brazenly. To establish himself as a master of the medium, he goes in for all the wizardry offered by a non-linear screenplay.
The first episode, Ilichavayan (The Dead Jester), is the story of a woman who unwillingly enters holy matrimony; the guy in question is the loser here, at least at first. But as the series progresses, the layers peel off, until everyone is revealed to be nakedly bankrupt in ethics and in every other way possible.
Without giving too much away, I should say that the series features gay characters in a way not portrayed in Tamil before (most definitely not in the theatre near you). It also features a lead female character, Mahati (Amrutha), playing a woman whose stubbornness is only outdone by her hot temper. Mahati, all of 24, isn’t scared of even disposing her husband’s dead body all by herself, but grudgingly lets her boyfriend help her. Yeah, she has one even though she is married.
The first episode brims with metaphors, and coming up with original ones (this is an original series after all) proves to be quite hard. An angry father squeezes a lemon into a cup, a couple argues furiously over a divorce as their image is reflected on a framed photograph of their wedding -- the metaphors rain on our parade, but Roju seems to abandon this line of thought for more straightforward storytelling as the series evolves.
Right from the first sequence, the director draws your attention violently, with the killing of the husband happening in the first two minutes itself (That should go down well with millennials).
The opening scene with the power outage during rain reminds us of Subbaraj’s debut Pizza (2012), but it as yet unclear what the maker of that hit film does in this series, apart from lending it his brand name. That first scene is a bit of a cliché, so Roju re-works it as hard as he can with quite a bit of help from cinematographer Dineshkumar Purushothaman. But no amount of work helps us reason out the number of candles lit across the house (I counted at least three in the kitchen, which is bizarre).
At some point, you are asked to choose who is more evil among all the characters -- the man who sets the chain of events in motion or the anti-heroine; sometimes it looks like the boyfriend who is in it for the sex alone is the devil (not in the literal sense) himself. All of this, of course, can be quite disturbing.
Amrutha, who has collaborated with Subbaraj before this, comes up with a terrific performance. The way she squeezes the milk out a packet to distract her mother from the dead body in the house was nicely done. Her character has shades of negativity and I remain unsure if Amrutha is aware of which side of the moral spectrum her character falls.
With the marriage between Mahati and Ram (a pretty good Vikas) as the first shot, Roju moves with ease to specific days before and after it, where he seems to capturing the motion midway. It looks like he is peeping in and out of conversations and events almost surreptitiously.
The second episode, Punnagai Mannan (King of Smiles), makes a reference to Rajinikanth’s Yejaman (1993). During a conversation between Mahati and Indrajith (actor Rohit), her boyfriend, we see a painting of Vincent Van Gogh in the background. In another scene, mother and daughter discuss a fleeting image of the Superstar racing by in his Fiat.
All of this makes the series much more interesting as you hunt for clues, but a deeper meaning still eludes me. The show is dark, as you must have figured out by now, and the humour is morbid. Jokes are made about “true love”, masturbation, sex and menstruation. Sometimes, I felt the filmmakers were trying too hard to break the moral code of good entertainment -- there were times when the ‘shock and awe’ got on my nerves.
Not to say that the series should be dismissed as crude, vulgar and frivolous -- far from it. The screenplay is complex, layered and very often unpredictable. Every episode ends with a cliff-hanger, each one subtler than the last, and perhaps, less effective. Lines are well-written, but a lot more could go into delivering them. The way Mahati switches from Chennai Tamil to English expletives was a bit jarring.
The use of mirrors all through Season One is fascinating. A photo frame of the wedding breaks in the opening scene and the boyfriend is later revealed to be a photographer. At the studio of the boyfriend, at least two sequences involving the extensive use of mirrors immediately brought to mind both Iruvar and Birdman, masterpieces in their own right. A mirror is shattered by Mahati on the day of her wedding, reflecting how her own life is in pieces. Later, she runs into Indra in a restroom, you guessed it, with mirrors.
The costume department does well too, dressing up Mahati in white, a colour that so pointedly does not reflect her character (or does it?) But, beyond all this, I have deep-seated admiration for the work put out for our viewing pleasure. Genuine entertainment is hard to come by and we can cheer from the sidelines, but not without reservations -- in this case particularly about the politics of gender and identity.
Subbaraj under his banner, Stone Bench Originals, produces the show. You have the option of downloading the episodes too from ZEE5. But this is premium content, so you will have to pay first. The show is translated into Hindi and Marathi. The first eight episodes of Season One released online on July 23.
ZEE5, the fledgling on-demand-video service of the media behemoth, was launched on Valentine’s Day this year. Is this the best platform for Kallachirippu? We will know in the coming days.