The script for nearly every mainstream Tamil film probably begins with the question, 'Who is my hero and what does he do?'. Considering that the film industry is driven by male lead actors, this is only to be expected. But what will our filmmakers do if they're freed from these constraints?
Turns out they will choose to tell stories with characters of all ages, with all kinds of personalities that you see in real life but hardly on the screen. And ironically, it's during the coronavirus induced lockdown that some of the most well-known names from the Tamil film industry seem to have found their freedom.
Putham Pudhu Kaalai, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is an anthology of five shorts. They're all connected by the same theme â€” set during the 21-day lockdown â€” but are each unique stories otherwise. Except for Karthik Subbaraj's film, which is the last in the series, the other four are set in upper-middle-class homes.
As with any anthology series, viewers are bound to pick their favourites. For me, it's a close contest between Gautham Menon's Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum (the title is from a song from the director's Acham Enbadhu Madamayada) and Sudha Kongara's Ilamai Idho Idho, with which the film begins. Perhaps because these films also have the strongest performances.
Ilamai Idho Idho has a quirky premise. An elderly man and his girlfriend (no, he isn't a sugar daddy) lie to their respective families and plan a rendezvous in his home. While the elderly are just plain old and uninteresting to the young, how do they see each other?
The film is a guilt-free exploration of desire and dreams for the old, making it refreshingly new even if the romance is deliberately cinematic. There are no melodramatic justifications for what happens, and the normalisation of such feelings among older people is a relief. Kalidas and Kalyani are good at what they do, but the veterans, Jayaram and Urvashi, are leagues ahead (and I wish there had been more of them). The only dissonance is in the markedly different accents of a character who is played by two actors.
Avaranum Naanum/Avalum Naanum comes as a surprise. As with most Gautham Menon films, here too, the voiceover plays an important role but it's in the form of WhatsApp chats being voiced aloud. There is no dashing hero who is obsessed with the beauty of the leading lady; it's still a man-woman relationship but it happens to be between a grandfather and his granddaughter.
MS Bhaskar as a retired nuclear physicist and Ritu Varma as his IT professional granddaughter are both excellent in their respective roles. The granddaughter is not fond of him because he's chosen to distance himself from their family; you assume, just like the young woman, that this must be for a regressive reason, so the explanation is quite unexpected. From the way he drops his 'right-o' to his tendency to micromanage, MS Bhaskar is the thatha everyone has seen at least once in their lifetime. Ritu Varma as the icy granddaughter, who slowly warms up to this eccentric old man, is just as believable. This is a short that could have been stretched into a full-length film and it would have been just as entertaining.
Coffee, Anyone?, directed by Suhasini Maniratnam, is about three sisters (Suhasini, Anu Hassan and Shruti Haasan) and their troubled relationship with their parents. Here, too, old people are at the centre of the narrative. Kathadi Ramamoorthy plays their father who is determined to keep his bedridden wife at home, despite objections from his offspring.
While the premise is interesting, the story takes some convenient and melodramatic twists that seem out of place in a series like this. Shruti's role is brief but she does well with what she's been given. The direction is old-fashioned in some places; two characters talking over the phone while crisscrossing each other, for instance. I also wished the film had a more open ending, just like the other shorts in the series.
Rajiv Menon's Reunion has the stunning Andrea playing a drug addict and musician who finds herself in her old school friend's (Carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan) house along with his elderly mother (Leela Samson). The non-judgmental tone of the narrative is fresh, considering the subject. I couldn't help but chuckle when Leela's character compares her late husband's style of lovemaking to someone administering an injection and withdrawing the syringe (he was a doctor).
Some bits though, like a practising doctor Googling cocaine addiction and reading a page about 'misconceptions' that make artists consume drugs, come off looking unnecessary for this medium. Mainstream filmmakers often have the burden of having to 'educate' their audience across centres to make them 'get' the film. Considering that isn't the case for OTT, such forced connections in the screenplay are best avoided. But this version of a school reunion, while nowhere as dramatic as 96, is sweet and enjoyable.
Miracle, directed by Karthik Subbaraj, is distinctly different from the other feel-good films. It isn't only the cushioned middle-class that's affected by the lockdown, it's also thieves (Bobby Simha and his sidekick) who suddenly find themselves bereft of opportunities. Inspired by a godman who mechanically drones on about miracles, they decide to try their luck.
The writing is typical of Karthik's films â€” characters who are on the grey side of the law, twists where you least expect them, and a jigsaw puzzle plot. But while the connections are quite clever, the short somehow leaves you wanting more. The characters leave us unmoved although it is an entertaining little story.
Light on the mind and easy on the eye, Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a fun weekend watch. Mostly steering away from the cliches of the big screen, this is indeed 'putham pudhu' storytelling for the Tamil audience.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.
Watch the trailer of Putham Pudhu Kaalai