'Kuthiraivaal' review: A psychedelic film that will confound you

Once you lose that dying need to reason, you might as well sit back and enjoy the beauty of the frames, and just watch the characters at work.
Poster of Kuthiraivaal
Poster of Kuthiraivaal
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It sounded like a cosy fantasy tale you could sit and relax with. A man waking up with a horse tail on his back after a strange dream in the night – sounds about right. But you would have been really, really mistaken in assuming it was going to be a relaxing experience watching Kuthiraivaal, directed by newcomers Manoj Leonel Jason and Shyam Sunder, which premiered on Friday at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). Turns out, it is a huge exercise for the brain to even keep track, forget trying to make sense of all that’s presented to you. It can however be a really interesting experience, and what is generally perceived as a psychedelic one.

Saravanan (Kalaiyarasan), aged 38, wakes up one morning with a horse tail which he has no control over. Till the end of the film, you see him squirming as the tail kicks him. Only at one point he says, it moves whenever he has thoughts. And he definitely has thoughts all the time – he has to figure out what the new body part means.

The first many moments of the film, you as a viewer, are trying to make sense of this, taking the side of the confused protagonist. The questions he asks go through your mind – do others see it or is it only him, since it happened in the night is it part of a dream, but what was the dream about?

Saravanan, lost and confused, smoking cigar after cigar, goes to many people for his answers  – a paati who can interpret dreams, an old Math teacher, and an astrologer among them. To the paati, he tells his story in an attempt to remember the forgotten dream that brought him the horse tail. There, in those memories, you find Saravanan as a regular office-goer living comfortably alone in an apartment. If your logical mind is at work here, you notice that Saravanan, in his pre-tail days, led a casual perhaps messed-up life. He liked his drink and his smoke so much that he sips the Scotch before leaving for work. At the bank where he works, he appears to show withdrawal symptoms where his hand shakes while taking a customer's slip. And all the hallucinations that are to follow  – including the imaginary horsetail –  are the effects of alcoholism, you conclude hastily, wanting an explanation for what's going on.

Watch: Teaser of Kuthiraivaal

But that's exactly what the makers appear to have not wanted at all  – a single explanation, a logic, a chronology to connect scene to scene. So they go from random incident to random incident, strange people with their stranger habits walking in and out, time behaving the way it wants, switching between the past and present, and colours playing patterns everywhere. Magical realism is too loudly calling out your name, asking you to stop processing. 

At some point, Saravanan calls himself a famous name –  Freud, the author of The Interpretations of Dreams. And his dream of a horse without the tail  – his advisors say  – have meanings. It is about a woman they say. Saravanan, you would have noticed, is indifferent to any such feelings. Not just women, but no person in particular appears to interest him. He finds the neighbour with his dog Frog boring, the colleagues in his bank he pays the least attention to (in the few moments he behaves normally) and spends his time in the apartment forever playing the television. A symphony played on the TV is stuck in his head, and a ball that he bounces around, travels with him everywhere. They too become parts of him, like the tail. Kalaiyarasan is too good with the movements. He never stops squirming even as he becomes indifferent to it.

After a while, you stop trying to figure out the goings-on and let the story with a mind of its own proceed on the screen. Memories, you are being told over and over again, are searched for in the dreams you see. What you have lost in memory you search for in dreams, says Anjali Patil, playing the picture-perfect fantasy woman appearing at Saravanan's bedside, his dreams and his memories. If you need a point to cut your thread of connection to your reasoning mind, it might be her picture by the bed, dressed in pretty yellow, calling herself Van Gogh.

The movie is very pretty to look at in that way  – not just the colours or clothing, but the frames, the lights, the psychedelic patterns taking shop in windows or ceilings, the candles, the ground, and Saravanan's neatly-kept apartment (unfitting to its careless owner). Cinematographer Karthik had plenty to do. He had to make sure nearly every frame was designed to give you a "high."

Once you lose that dying need to reason, you might as well sit back and enjoy the beauty of the frames, and just watch the characters at work, like on a stage, or a gallery with its varied pieces of art. 

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.

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