“Haridas”… Dad education

I’ll admit I was borderline terrified at the prospect of watching Haridas, given the praise it’s been getting for its “sensitive” treatment of the story of an autistic child. These films about the differently abled, to really work, need to transcend their disease-of-the-week scenarios with clear-eyed narration and spectacular lead performances – they need to be like My Left Foot, and what we usually get is something like Mozhi. But the director GNR Kumaravelan does something altogether unexpected and wonderful. He gives us not the story of a father with an autistic son, but that of a cop with an autistic son – and there’s a world of difference. Haridas isn’t just about a father’s attempts to understand a son who’s locked in his own world and appears to have thrown away the keys; it’s also about this man’s job, about his mission to apprehend a dreaded criminal. A potentially sticky story is thus infused with a core of steel, and these twin threads come together in a very satisfying knot.

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For a while, though, it looks like there’s going to be just the one story. Shiva (Kishore) decides to go on leave to care for his son Hari (Prithviraj Das). The boy was being looked after by his grandmother, but after she dies, Shiva has to step in – and this means feeding the boy, taking him to school, and even sitting beside him in the classroom, under the watchful eye of Amudhavalli (Sneha). But she seems to have more of a problem with his watchful eye. She’s mortified, at first, that she has to go about her duties with this big lug tracking her every move – and Kishore does look like a scrawnier version of Jason Statham – but she realises, soon, that he’s a good father, a committed father. And slowly we slip into a Little Man Tate-like narrative, with a single parent and a special child and a sympathetic teacher attuned to this child’s needs.

Like many Tamil filmmakers who tend to valourise the working class in order to broaden the reach of their films, Kumaravelan sets his film in a blue-collared universe. Hari goes to a corporation school where the students sit cross-legged on the floor. In other words, we are not in the spotless world of Taare Zameen Par – there’s grime in these frames. (There’s also a lot of sun; the cinematographer Rathnavelu likes to shoot his subjects in the harsh outdoors.) But, mercifully, we’re also not in the world of Saattai, whose crudeness had to be seen to be believed. Kumaravelan’s “commercial compromises” – a song with a jiggly item girl, a brutal fight sequence (which is beautifully shot), and a handful of comedy scenes – are woven neatly into the narrative. This is a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, and with these “compromises,” he isn’t pandering (which carries the suggestion of cheapening the material) so much as mainstreaming a hard-sell plot.

It’s only a few times that we feel he goes overboard – in a scene at an amusement park, for instance, where Hari’s autism is milked for melodrama (Sneha is generally effective, but she’s also directed to break down a few too many times), or another one where Shiva stumbles on the whereabouts of the villain (Pradeep Rawat) a little too conveniently, or even the opening shot, which lights on medals and certificates that clue us into Shiva’s special ability, something that we should have been allowed to find out much later, along with his father. (I could have also lived without the Rubik’s cube scene.) And for a while in the second half, the police investigation takes a backseat to the story of the boy – but these stretches are filled with good drama that rewards our emotional investment. Even those who dislike speechifying in the movies (and let me be the first to raise my hand) may find it hard to resist Shiva’s impassioned defense of Hari, when the latter is labeled mad or when Shiva decides not to sell his ancestral property or when Shiva makes a case for Hari in front of a selection committee.

Kishore does fine work here. Due to his prickly temperament, Amudhavalli jokes that he’s like Sathyaraj’s character in Kadalora Kavidhaigal – and like that earlier actor in a certain phase (remember him in Kadamai Kanniyam Kattupaadu?), Kishore shapes his performance with strength and silence, something that our heroes today are either not interested in or capable of. It helps that the character of Shiva is written with so much texture. He’s brusque when he talks to Amudhavalli as a cop, but later, on the phone, he’s back to being his son’s father – the softness in his tone is palpable. Even with his son, he thinks like a cop – solving the autism problem is, after all, like cracking another case. (The title is shaped like jigsaw tiles fitted together.) All the characters, really, are wonderfully lived-in people who say and do things that they would seem to say and do, and not just because a screenwriter stuffed those words into their mouths and shoehorned them into these situations. When Amudhavalli’s mother screams at her for lavishing all her attention on Hari, to the extent of expressing a desire to marry Shiva, we’re given a lovely line where this mother says she’s justified in being concerned about her daughter’s best interests (just as her daughter’s concerns revolve around Hari’s best interests).

Even the shrill headmistress is allowed notes of grace – she is the way she is only because she has a job to safeguard. In these scenes, Kumaravelan goes beyond simply valourising the working class. He paints empathetic portraits of living-breathing people trying to do their best with their lots in life. We come to care about these people, just as they care about each other. Shiva’s cohorts constantly refer to each other as maaple, mama, machan – and this sense of kinship extends to Shiva calling his friend’s mother amma, and she calling herself Hari’s paatti. Like that jigsaw on the title, everything snaps satisfyingly into place. Too often, we tend of think of commercial cinema as simply the kind of film where the leads get to dance to duets, and where the hero issues punches that put the bad guys in orbit. And thanks to filmmakers like Kumaravelan, we are reminded that there’s another kind too, affecting and straightforward films that employ popular idioms in the telling of real stories. That he makes nobility so watchable may be this director’s greatest achievement.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

15 thoughts on ““Haridas”… Dad education

  1. Glad you liked it.
    I watched it before any of these glowing reviews came out and simply hated it. Somehow nothing worked (except Kishore, of course).

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  2. Good review. I finished your book on Mani Ratnam just a few hours back.
    I would like to discuss more . Kindly share your mail id.

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  3. SPOILER AHEAD!

    What a lovely review!! I especially liked the director not segwaying into a romantic track with Sneha and Kishore. It is mature and much more believable to see Kishore say no to Sneha.
    A befitting review to a wonderful movie !!

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  4. Baradwaj – Your review makes it appealing to watch this movie and validate your opinions. Will look forward for watching the movie and then returning to place my real comments!!

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  5. Little unclear about one thing here.
    Is there a problem in valourising the working class? Like they don’t deserve to me valourised or anything.
    Or your point is more about undermining the scope for fleshing out real people out of them, in a bid to make them saints, for commercial purposes?

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  6. Muthuvel: No problem about this valourisation at all. I’m not stating this as a good thing or a bad thing. There’s no judgement — just that it is that way.

    What I said was more along the lines of what you said later, though I wouldn’t go as far as calling them “saints”. Replace that with “figures and situations more relatable and recognisable to the masses at large” — which is why I contrasted this with the somewhat elite world of TZP.

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  7. I didn’t read the review as I do not know much about the movie. But this seems to be the only way I can reach out to you and say hello. So thought, I would drop in and say hello.

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  8. And whenever you publish my comment, I feel like making love to myself. That is how much I love myself whenever you read and endorse whatever I write.

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  9. Aee macha Mihir,careful here man! ;-) You need to talk to someone about these feelings my friend……

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  10. A very good and nice movie.for 2013.. could have avoided the unnecessary commercial police Gaana song. Kishore is a great actor very promising….suited well with his underplaying at some emotions with the child.
    One thing constantly running in my mind while watching the movie and after finishing the movie was missing Ilaiyaraja’s BGM. Vijay Anthony actually tried to play some imtovization of Anjali BGM theme at some places.
    Also….just a thought if the role of Shiva das was played by Prakash Raj, could he have created some histrionics or another national award in the lines of Kanjeevaram?
    Learnt that GNR kumarvel ( director) is yesteryear director GN Rangarajan

    Worth watching with the family

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  11. It was this review that made me want to watch the movie, Baradwaj, and it was so worth it! The Rubik’s cube sequence – oh, absolutely unnecessary, esp since the father too was making a case… did they need extra validation? Sneha going down on her knees at the start of the marathon – well… And the bits of dramatic music that didn’t fade, but jumped from one frame to another… that jarred. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the movie, especially the classroom scene… Now, I’m really curious to sit in on one of the classrooms with children of different abilities and see how it really is… I have seen it there, all L’s schools were inclusive, and so are the ones she goes to here, except, I’ve never volunteered in the classrooms here, like I did there. My bad. Oh, and sorry for the digression… thinking aloud? :)

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  12. Interesting choice of cast as well – the cop to whom the case is handed over is the same guy who played Sonia Agarwal’s brother in Pudhupettai and the way they spoke with each other including the (slightly overdone) screaming scene with Pradeep Rawat was refreshingly different – unlike other cop movies (GVM’s?) where the cops appear, what is the word for it, “high class”

    Not that there is a problem with it, but it was interesting. I could have also lived without the tambram committee member approving cigarette companies as sponsor. I have never understood what it is with film-makers and why they pick on them?

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