There is a pivotal scene in Taramani, when Andrea Jeramiah and Vasanth Ravi, are seated at the balcony of her home and she takes a deep puff from a cigarette. Ravi watches aghast and says, "How can you smoke? You are the mother of a son!"
Andrea spares him a fleeting glance before retorting, "And you are the son of a mother. So?"
This dialogue sets the tone for this movie directed and written by Ram, starring Andrea as Diya and Vasanth Ravi as Prabhunath in the lead roles. Calling it a love story would do it grave injustice. What this film is, is an observation of human behaviour and how love, desire and sexism often clash, resulting in catastrophic consequences. While the film's name comes from where it is set, the story is one you can see unfold anywhere in urban India.
Andrea plays an independent single mother who happens to cross paths with Vasanth, a love failure whose girlfriend (played by Anjali) decides to leave him for a man she met abroad. But as the film's teaser already shows, it is not before she turns from a 'good' saree wearing woman to a 'bad' modern girl. Of course, the fact that she demanded he immediately give her Rs 3 lakh before her departure to the US, didn't ring any warning bells in our hero's head.
Andrea and Vasant strike an unlikely friendship that soon blossoms into love, courtesy Andrea's son who insists that a man he calls 'stranger' stays with them because he 'loves his beard'. Till this scene, the movie remains a bit surreal and fails to engage. But it manages to highlight the individual difficulties that the protagonists face in their gender role.
But soon after this, you are going through a rollercoaster of emotions as Vasant constantly expects Andrea to fit into the societal norms set for a woman. Several bitter conversations, set in dim light against blue and grey backgrounds, keeps your focus on the sharp dialogues that the lead characters spew out angrily.
While Vasant's words are coloured by sexism, Andrea's dialogues display strength that comes from battles fought in a patriarchal society.
Their relationship becomes the highlight of the film till the interval, its ups and downs keeping you glued to your seat in terror.
The terror comes from the fear that the worst portrayal of this misogyny is perhaps yet to come.
The dialogues are real, raw and gut wrenching. In one scene, Andrea's mother tells her grandson, "Don't listen to your mother, she is a bitch." The boy unaware of the word's meaning, chants it out to his mother in glee. Andrea doesn't react and she doesn't need to because the dent is already made. The music director has made clever use of silences through the film to raise the tension and make you focus on the harsh words being exchanged.
But this film goes beyond love to show how desire turn humans vile. While Andrea exposes the men that cross her path at work, Vasant is keen to show you how women go 'astray'. The film's greatest achievement is perhaps how uncomfortable it makes you, as it broaches the subject of fidelity in marriage. What is taken for granted in Indian society, is in fact highly violated by both sexes in the movie. It is almost a competition.
The film is stitched together by a rather sexist narrator who is constantly giving you statutory warnings even as the protagonists do the exact opposite. The film gets rather slow after the interval and there is only so many depressing moments you can handle but you can forgive them because the shots are beautiful.
Cinematographer Theni Easwar will stun you with the visuals he offers. Every shot gives away a piece of the character and the dull colours only make it more dramatic when the strong dialogues come at you. The actors all deliver stellar performances. Andrea especially shines as a mother trying to protect her son and herself from the harassment she faces on a daily basis. While Vasant's source of income through the movie remain dubious, his acting manages to distract you from the question for most part of the film.
The credit for how gripping the movie is, however, goes to the screenplay, constantly cutting from Andrea to Vasant, to detail their contrasting experiences. Ram keeps you wondering where the film is going and what it is trying to say.
But as it turns out the movie has no message. It is merely a comment on society. One that will make you squirm with uneasiness and engage in dialogue with yourself long after you leave the cinema hall.