Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa, the sequel to last year’s lockdown anthology Putham Pudhu Kaalai, seems self-reflective in its title. The second edition is a marked improvement to the 2020 mostly-cringe fest, that at least the series has seen “a new dawn” (putham pudhu kaalai) even if the age of COVID-19 hasn’t. Two of the shorts, in particular, struck me for their layered handling of human vulnerabilities that have been exacerbated by a pandemic now in its third relentless year. We are tired and have been isolated for far too long. We’ve lost loved ones to the disease or have had treasured relationships slip away in the prolonged uncertainty of these times. Too many of us are jaded, grieving, adrift even amidst fleeting “returns to normalcy”. Sharply capturing the crushing weight of all these emotions are Loners and Nizhal Tharum Idham. The first is directed by Halitha Shameem, known for Aelay and Sillu Karupatti. The second by Richard Anthony, former assistant director to Mani Ratnam, marks his directorial debut.
Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa has been streaming on Amazon Prime Video for a few days now, so most readers would be familiar with the storylines. For those who are not, Loners is the tale of Nalla (Lijomol Jose) and Dheeran (Arjun Das), two young people, isolating as the second wave of the pandemic swept across the world. They become friends over a series of video calls. The film chooses to avoid showing the chaos of those months: the desperate search for beds or oxygen or medication, the crowded hospital parking lots and corridors that become death chambers, the black smoke and fires of mass funeral pyres – an image burnt forever into our memories.
In Loners, Nalla and Dheeran helplessly, hopelessly witness those horrors from afar. They are protected to a large degree, yes, but are not secure. Nalla lives almost in a waking dream through the uncertainty of her job and the pain of a recent break-up. Dheeran is mourning the death of a close friend who succumbed to the coronavirus. They are trapped by their separate griefs. Their ability to talk to each other about their agony is hesitant, it rolls slowly off their tongues. This is particularly true of Dheeran. We see his vulnerability stick in his throat, uncertain if it can be voiced out. Arjun Das delivers a masterclass in portraying male vulnerability while Halitha’s script proves that it can be done without using toxic masculine props. Dheeran’s shyness as he slowly opens up to speak his pain, his surprised delight in Nalla’s sharp wit, the ache of his friend’s death that he translates to taking care of the friend’s dog that’s living with him, are all rare elements in male characters in Tamil cinema. In that way, the film seems to dismiss the need for the singular type of masculinity that is alone allowed on our screens.
Nalla’s heartache – captured by mundane events such as a wrongly delivered food order – shows how grief for a lost relationship can come in waves; the little innocuous things that can trigger it, while at other times we have spurts of productivity. Along with her, we understand instinctively the claustrophobia of that grief when its expression is limited within the severe restrictions of a lockdown. We sense, as though we feel it ourselves, the exhausted edge she is standing on. It is breathtakingly familiar.
What is also familiar is the formation of Nalla and Dheeran’s friendship, through an online world where many of us found camaraderie during the lockdowns. Several of my recent friendships were formed first on Twitter threads or DMs. They’ve grown into therapeutic alliances based on shared politics or love for cinema or the myriad other ways we sought common ground while cut off from our previous lives. The ending of Loners pays a gentle tribute to the scant goodness found in this unfortunately named “new normal”.
If Loners was a story of two people trying to bridge distances made vaster by the pandemic, Nizhal Tharum Idham showed the internal dislocation that happened within us during the lockdowns. Shobi (Aishwarya Lekshmi) is a working woman whose long-estranged father dies of a heart attack during the second lockdown. The long periods of isolation for those living alone seemed to scramble our abilities for interpersonal relationships. Some of us, already reticent, withdrew further into ourselves even as we yearned for meaningful connection.
We see that conflict in Shobi. She’s a no-nonsense young woman who knows how to sharply rebuff people’s attempts to infantilise her. She knows the value of solitude and is also desperately lonely. Nizhal Tharum Idham doesn’t discredit the former. As viewers, we are onlookers to her deeply relatable one-step-forward-two-steps backward way of trying to forge profound relationships. The demons accompanying her at times as ghostly figures on the screen, sometimes unnecessarily theatrical, are recognisably our own. People, she just became friends with, take her to a secret bar; a resolute attempt to hold on to old normalcy. The conversation at the table is unremarkable, just banter among friends. Yet, at one point, Shobi is so overwhelmed she beats a hasty retreat, fairly fleeing until she’s home and can slam the doors shut. The scene, in my view, rawly captured the struggle it was to re-acclimate to others after emerging from prolonged periods of isolating alone.
Past traumas, fundamentally flawed family ties, the parts of our personalities we struggle against entrenched their effects during the lockdowns. In Nizhal Tharum Idham we witness them rupturing, bleeding into fragile attempts to establish normalcy, to establish a connection. Shobi, who goes to Pondicherry where she grew up, for her father’s funeral is at once alone in her childhood home, haunted by old memories even as lockdown restrictions throw a pallor of alienness over everything familiar. The pandemic leaves its stamp on the type of funeral possible, the streets, the government offices she must run around. The whirlwind of chaotic emotions within her is sharply off-set by the deserted roads and empty childhood home.
The hope in the anthology title Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa, tinged with despair, are feelings we share, even if the series itself when all the shorts are taken into account can be generously described as uneven. As the third wave spreads across the globe, despair, rather than hope seems reasonable. So, it’s some small comfort that there are filmmakers who are able to hold a mirror up to the wounds lockdown and isolation has left, yet try to offer hope as a salve.