A mother in conflict: Why Simran's 'Kannathil Muthamittal' is unforgettable

In #WatchWithTNM this week, we revisit Simran's heartbreaking performance as Indira in 'Kannathil Muthamittal'.
A mother in conflict: Why Simran's 'Kannathil Muthamittal' is unforgettable

A bereft Amudha looks up at Indira and asks, 'Why did you lie that I was like you?"

Pat comes the reply, "You are like me, aren't you?"

The words are beseeching, an attempt to soothe the child and herself.

"Will you send me away?" asks Amudha, after a flurry of other questions.

"No, fool," says Indira, her face growing more desperate as she attempts to convince the child.

"Then why did you tell me, you could have told me later," Amudha tries to reason, tearfully.

And at that moment, Indira, played by Simran, is immediately silenced as the two sit on a swing. Her hand wraps around the young girl protectively, as if bracing herself too, and in one subtle flick of her head, the worry and confusion in her eyes become apparent. Comprehension dawns on her face as the weight of realisation comes crashing in. And at this moment, for the viewer, all they see is a mother torn between the pact with her husband to tell their daughter that she is adopted and the need to protect her child. There is no Simran on the screen, only her character Indira.

(Still from the film)

Kannathil Muthamittal, which released in 2002, is arguably one of Simran's best performances and it didn't go unnoticed, as is evident from the multiple awards that she and the film received. But, while her performance was critically acclaimed, the film's message and child actor Keerthana are often the first to be recalled by the audience when the film is mentioned. But today, in #WatchwithTNM, we delve deeper into how Simran brought to life a mother's internal conflict in a land that is in war with itself.

To say that 2002 was one of Simran's busiest and biggest years in Kollywood would be an understatement. She had no less than eight film releases — all demanding different strengths and performances.

And Kannathil Muthamittal, which released soon after Pammal K Sambandam (a comedy), saw Simran like never before. As the mother of three children, she shed every vestige of glamour, even ignoring her dancing prowess, to dedicate herself completely to the performance.

From the very first shot of Indira in Kannathil Muthamittal, it is clear that Simran or the stereotypical idea of her was not present in the movie. She is seen in an everyday blue salwar with a yellow dupatta tied hastily, combing her daughter's hair and zipping up her son's pants. She is a quintessential working woman — which in this, and most patriarchal households, means that she does all the housework and manages to keep her job as a television anchor.

She is constantly busy, handling the children, her husband (played by Madhavan), her father and the housework. Simran excels in portraying the role of a harried mother and wife, who has always put her family before her. With a comb stuck to her head and hand ready to whack her naughty children, she's a sea apart from the glamorous roles that she was known for. 

Within the first few scenes of the film, it is apparent that the children in the household dote on her. Though she may be the bad cop when it comes to parenting, they recognise that she is their anchor.

And so convincing is her performance that when her husband Thiruchelvan (Madhavan) reveals to Amudha (Keerthana) that she is adopted in a rather brusque way, you ache for Indira's soothing presence. You know it was a mistake that she is not the one breaking the news.

It is very rare in Tamil cinema for the audience to wish that the female actor was there to save the day or rescue the other characters from making a grave mistake. But, in Kannathil Muthamittal, director and screenplay writer Mani Ratnam's beautiful characterisation of Indira and the soul Simran gave to the role, keep you wanting her in every frame.

When Amudha disappears from school and is later found at the Perambur railway station, Simran displays a series of heightened emotions which leave you in awe. But this is only after repeated viewing because for the first 20 times, you are still crying with her for the lost child.

She moves from relief, to concern, to comforting her daughter on the phone.

The anxiety on her face as she says, "Amudha Amudha, why have you gone there?" makes you hold your breath. The pain she faces is evident, you don't have to be a mother to understand.

And as they travel by car to the station, in a matter of two minutes, she shifts from anger to desperation and self doubt, as she questions whether she didn't bring up her child well enough.

While Madhavan's memo was clearly to remain stoic, Simran's expressions were kaleidoscopic as the actor portrayed a range of emotions, all culminating into her standing opposite Amudha on the railway platform. Here, there is anger and betrayal, all portrayed through just her glistening eyes.

Kannathil Muthamittal is one of the few Tamil films to dive deep into a relationship between mother and daughter. And this relationship expands between Amudha and Indira, Amudha and Shyama (Nandita Das who portrays her biological mother) and Shyama and her motherland (Sri Lanka).

The men in this film are merely plot devices, as each of these women battles to understand their relationships and the conflicts that these throw up.

When Thiruchelvan, Indira and Amudha travel to Sri Lanka to meet MD Shyama (Nanditha Das), Amudha looks to her father for comfort, as the strain in her relationship increases with her mother.

But little does she realise that it is Indira's parenting and love for her that makes her ask who her "real" mother is, and almost never (except in the climax) about the identity of her father. It is clear that the primary caregiver is her mother and in search for the biological one, she believes that she could receive even more love than she already does.

For Simran, the role must have been truly challenging. She underplays her emotions in a precise manner, coming off as supportive yet reluctant about this quest. The actor excels in her craft, dialling up and down emotions that take the viewers with her on this journey.

In the flashback that explains the adoption, she is playful and reckless, making you root for her as she woos the stoic Thiruchelvan. Her cry of joy and relief when he hugs her and her confusion about whether her marriage was merely a ploy to adopt a child, tugs at your heart. The chemistry she shares with Madhavan is thrilling. 

But the scene which perhaps portrays her acting prowess the best is when, after facing a near death experience in Mangulam in Sri Lanka, she is seen breaking down while talking to her children later.

She calls them, only to have her older son angry over her decision to leave them for Amudha's quest. She manages to brave through this, but when her younger son begins to cry on the phone, a heartbroken Indira is seen erupting into tears, saying 'I love you' into the phone desperately. This delicate moment juxtaposed with the war around her, brings to fore the deep conflict that her character faces as a mother.

It is the subtleties in her performance that make her shine in this role. When Amudha says 'This is not my mother' to Harold Wikramsinghe (Prakash Raj) at the airport, the flash of hurt in her eyes and the efforts to hide her emotions in front of a stranger, stand out. When she complains to Thiruchelvan about Amudha, and asks if he still loves her, her body language spells insecurity and the need for comfort. And when Amudha finally meets her mother Shyama, it is now a confident Indira who stands by her. Simran portrays a woman sure of her role in her daughter's life. Never does she attempt to steal the limelight in this scene. Her mere presence is reassuring for both the child and the audience, for when Amudha is in her mother's arms, no harm can befall her.

Just as Amudha, Indira too has faced a journey through this film. One that actor Simran steers with a performance that is forever etched in our memories. 

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