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.
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.
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