Very rarely does a film manage to set a pace that is equal to that of reading a novel. While we’re talking about two different mediums, and one can never be the same as the other, films often tend to impress momentarily, leaving us with a short-lived connection for the characters seen on screen. It might, therefore, come as a challenge for filmmakers to perfect that illusion wherein the viewer feels a deeper bond with the characters seen on screen.
Director Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai is one such rare film that will gracefully transport you into its world from its very first frame. Merku Thodarchi Malai, as the title signifies, is not just one person’s story. It is the story of a region, of its people. If films are often built upon fictional narratives, Merku Thodarchi Malai feels like its story has been written based on real-life incidents, following real characters.
The most fragile, raw and simplest of characters carry forward a compelling story that would’ve been impossible to capture had the director cast well-known actors instead. In that sense, the casting is flawless.
The conversation between Kazhudhkaara Mookkaiya and Vanakali (Pandi) is an interaction that brings out the essence of life on the mountains, of the kind of friendship these men share. “You started before dawn, are you just coming now Mookkaiya? You’re wasting your time with these donkeys. I would’ve trekked up and down four times by now,” boasts Vanakali.
“You’ve shrunk so much walking with these donkeys. If only you carry the load on your back you could’ve come up swiftly, no?” he adds. For which Mookkaiya responds, “Since the time this path has existed, my donkeys and I have travelled like this only. One, I should die or my donkeys should die. Until then I’ll keep coming!”
This exchange effortlessly establishes the kind of lives these men who trek up and down the mountain several times a day, carrying heavy loads on their back, live. What would their conversations be like? How do they manage to find some respite in the midst of heavy labour? This is their tea-time banter. One that might make you laugh at first and then feel the pain in the gut.
Vanakali is perhaps one of the best character sketches in this film. An extremely well-choreographed shot follows the self-narration of his life story. As his story gets more personal, the camera pans upward. The result becomes one of the best sequences seen on screen in a very long time.
The film’s central plot follows Rangasamy, played brilliantly by debutant Antony, a daily wage cardamom plantation labourer who dreams of owning a plot of land one day. Woven around it is one of the most organic political layers that becomes inseparable from the story. Merku Thodarchi Malai is also home to several naive, honest and simple characters. These characters - Chakko (Abu Valayangulam), Eswari (Gayathri Krishna), Adivaram Paakiyam (Sornam), Kethara, Kankali (Anthony Vaathiyaar) are vital to the story and the film is carried upon their shoulders quite literally.
The cinematography is on a whole different league altogether. The frames are beautifully composed, poetic. The lighting, colour palette have all been set with great expertise, with a very good eye for detail. Cinematographer Theni Eshwar deserves all the accolades that are to come his way.
Editor Mu Kasivishwanathan, too, has done a brilliant job in seamlessly composing all the sequences together. The understanding of time is one of the best achievements of this film. No shots are rushed. The cuts do not choke you. The passage of time is retained quite organically in the narrative. There’s not one loose thread or scene to make you feel that the director has left a hole uncovered. The makeup, to indicate the passing of time, has been brilliantly done.
Merku Thodarchi Malai has also captured the sounds of the mountains very well. For its visual brilliance, this film is one that can do without any background score or music. But 100 years of conditioning in Tamil cinema is yet to relieve us of this burden. In some places, the violin and flute bits remind you that it is indeed a Tamil film that you’re watching.
Merku Thodarchi Malai is not a sob story. There are no social messages on avenging delivered at the end of it. The film is more of a mirror that is turned inward to reflect on one’s own thoughts. It becomes a story that you will carry with you, perhaps a lot like those sacks of cardamom its people carry.
The film that was completed in 2016 has travelled across the world, winning a great number of accolades and nominations at National and International Film Festivals so far. Produced by Vijay Sethupathi Productions, the film will hit the screens on August 24. Director Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai is one of the best films in recent times, and a must-watch for Tamil audiences.
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.