Suseenthiran’s Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer is a love procedural, a painstaking step-by-step account of how a boy and a girl get together, how they are when in love, what happens to those around them while they are in love, what happens to them when there’s a crisis that brings about hurt and humiliation and ego hassles, and how they pick themselves up and carry on. This outline, in itself, doesn’t suggest anything new. It’s what’s been happening in love stories over the decades. What’s new is the vérité approach, the feeling that we are a fly on the wall, a silent spectator along with the handheld camera. This is an important film, the director’s best, and more than ample atonement for Rajapattai. It marries the traditional concerns of Tamil cinema – romance, friendships, family honour, virginity – with modern narrative techniques, and it proves that the way forward isn’t just in making irreverent tongue-in-cheek entertainers (welcome though Pizza and its ilk are) but also in telling old stories in new ways.
The film opens in and around an engineering college, and the director draws us in with lots of sharp, well-written humour. Studies appear to be the last thing on these students’ minds. There’s the guy who moans, “Breakup aayiduchu machi.” There’s the guy who parrots the cliché, “Sincere-a love pannaren…” There’s the girl who advises a boy that in order to get himself a girlfriend, he must first be friends with the girl and – possibly more important – he must get himself a bike, for girls like to go on long rides while holding on tight to their boyfriends. We meet the guy who speaks in a vaguely feminine voice. We meet the girl who has a birthday, and gets calls from midnight even as her father struggles to fall asleep amidst all the chattering. We meet the guy with grey hair who thanks Thala Ajith for making salt-and-pepper hairstyles cool again.
And then, we withdraw from this crowd and begin to follow Karthi (Santhosh Ramesh) and Shweta (Manisha Yadav) – partly because this is their story, partly because of the reality that friends begin to fall behind as we fall in love. An older film would label this as selfish, but it’s more self-absorption, the feeling that our emotions come first, we come first, and everything and everyone else can wait. And this self-absorption makes Karthi and Shweta cheat and lie. They have to resort to subterfuge because they aren’t upper-crust kids who can go home and declare to too-busy parents that they have a boyfriend or girlfriend. These are middle-class people, the children of tuition teachers and housewives who knead dough while watching programmes on the Tamil channels. If Karthi and Shweta didn’t cheat and lie, they couldn’t be together.
At first, he loves her. She doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. Her friend advises her to walk away. But at some level – maybe just because she’s been advised to walk away, for who likes to be advised at that age? – she’s interested. He does something reckless. She falls for him. And two more names, in hearts, go up on the KAJ Schmidt memorial at Elliot’s beach. Suseenthiran captures this courtship beautifully. He doesn’t force Karthi and Shweta into artificial scenes that we’re meant to find cute. Instead, he follows them around as they walk into Globus, past the eager salesgirl, who rolls her eyes when they walk in the next time because she knows they aren’t here to buy anything but just to hang out. Even the laugh-out-loud scenes – a priceless one involves a courier – are natural, organic, uncinematic developments. I had no idea Suseenthiran, whose career after an impressive debut with Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu has been a source of diminishing returns, was capable of such tact, such delicacy.
The film is stuffed with lovely snatches of conversations (not dialogue, sharpened and conceived to dazzle, but easy and remarkably unremarkable conversations, like the way the subject of caste crops up in a gathering), and inventive bits of drama, like the part where Shweta’s mom discovers the truth about her daughter. This development arises from a power cut that occurs out of schedule. When was the last time we saw a film so tuned to ground realities in the state? The actors (Thulasi, Jayaprakash, Arjun) are all terrific, without a scrap of makeup – and even this doesn’t come across as an affectation. (“Look what a sincere and uncompromised movie I am making.”) It’s just how it is. And the relationships are detailed quietly, simply. There are no shots of mothers coming across sleeping children and adjusting a bedspread. Even without these smoke signals, it’s easy to see how much these fathers and mothers love these children. Sometimes, guilt over reading a child’s SMS is all that’s needed to reveal what the dynamics are in a relationship.
That is why I began to squirm when the film – as it gradually turns very, very serious – veers into melodrama, the throwing-oneself-under-a-truck kind, the slicing-a-wrist kind, the showing-up-at-someone’s-doorstep-and-screeching-like-a-fishwife kind. So far, the only missteps have been the songs, which have a staged quality to them and stick out in the middle of a film that feels so casual. But now, we enter a dangerously messagey zone, and I couldn’t help wondering why. Why this finger-wagging undercurrent, this need to end with a horribly manipulative song, when the repercussions of actions have already been laid out through a pregnant sister who goes into sudden labour thanks to an unthinking brother, and a father who’s reduced to tears when forced to hear things about his daughter that no parent should have to hear? In the final stretch, Suseenthiran succumbs to the puritanical streak that infects much of Tamil cinema, but that should not be held against a film that does so much so well – and in so little time. Added bonus: urban kids aren’t castigated as evil pizza- and burger-chompers, their every bite a sign of the corruptions of Western civilization. They simply tuck into samosas. I practically wept.
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