“Thanga Meenkal”… Fishes out of water

Posted on August 31, 2013


The protagonist of Thanga Meenkal, Kalyani (the director Ram), is very much like Prabhakar, the protagonist of Ram’s earlier film, Kattradhu Thamizh. It isn’t just the beard and the glasses and the slightly crackpot air about the character (who looks like the kind of guy who’ll approach you for directions and then, for no reason, stab you in the stomach, smiling all the time) – but also the cussedness, the refusal to listen to good sense and lead a peaceful (if compromised) life, preferring, instead, to lock oneself up in an ivory tower of misplaced idealism. Kalyani and Prabhakar, in a way, are like the films they are in, practically daring us to love them (or, frankly, find anything even likeable about them) – and as with Prabhakar, I found myself with very little patience for Kalyani’s self-inflicted travails and profound sympathy for the people around him, the victims of his moods and eccentricities.

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I felt sorry for Kalyani’s father (‘Poo’ Ramu), a retired schoolteacher who has to keep providing for his son’s family, and also has to stand in as proxy father for his developmentally challenged granddaughter (Chellamma, played by Sadhana, who’s directed to give a wide-eyed, over-emphatic performance). He, not Kalyani, is the one who ends up pleading with the headmaster of Chellamma’s expensive private school when she flunks her exams. I felt sorry for Stella Miss (Lizzy), a harsh-tongued teacher who isn’t paid nearly enough to compensate for the overflowing classrooms and for being yelled at by irate parents. (To Ram’s credit, he lends his characters these grace notes, otherwise we may have ended up thinking that Stella Miss is this story’s villain.) Most of all, I felt sorry for Kalyani’s wife Vadivu (Shelly Kishore), who must surely be ruing the day she chose to elope with this man.

In a story widely publicized as one about a father and a daughter, you’d think that they would walk away with the plum scenes – but the film’s most poignant moment belongs to Vadivu. After a squabble with her mother-in-law (Rohini), she waits outside for Kalyani to return, and when he does she asks him, “Konjam velila koottittu poreengala?” All she wants, at that moment, is to escape these surroundings in which she’s confined all day. She wants to step out, and it doesn’t occur to her that she could have gone for a walk on her own. In another beautiful moment, when Kalyani is away in Cochin, she calls him from a public phone and as her voice rises with emotion, she catches herself in time, becoming aware that the person manning the store may be eavesdropping on her distress. At one point, Kalyani tells her that they’re no longer husband and wife, and that their only interaction thereon will be as Chellamma’s parents – and you feel terrible for her plight, caught between a daughter who’s described in generic terms as mandham, dull-witted, and a husband who sometimes seems as much a child. Ram is so invested in the relationship between father and daughter that we never learn if things are ever back to normal between husband and wife. This lack of closure seemed, to me, especially sadistic.

You could argue that this orneriness is precisely the point, that Ram’s protagonists are meant to challenge our preconceived notions of a lead character whom we at least sympathise with, if not empathise. You could argue that this is how someone snaps when he just can’t seem to catch a break and when life has pushed him into a corner. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Kalyani has pushed himself into this corner. At first, we see that he took up his job as a silver polisher because the flexible hours give him more time to attend to his daughter, but soon we see that it’s because his face gets coated with a patina of silver and this delights his daughter. (Silverface, she calls him.) And later, he pretends to be Santa. You get the feeling that he’d rather be a child, along with her, instead of growing up, being a man, and facing problems in a more practical fashion. (This infantilism was evident in Prabhakar too.) I wanted to applaud when an exasperated Vadivu tells Chellamma that it’s not really Santa but her father. Someone has to be a grown-up.

And even when Kalyani grows up, so to speak, and takes up a more remunerative job in Cochin, he never really escapes that ivory tower. In the film’s most jaw-droppingly awful contrivance, he traipses across mountains in search of a “rainmaking device” belonging to tribals – so that he will get the money to buy Chellamma the “Vodafone pup” she so wants. Ram wielded a bludgeon while depicting an aggressive form of chauvinism in Kattradhu Thamizh, and he wields the same bludgeon here, depicting an aggressive form of cuteness and whimsy. (You know what you’re in for when, in a song sequence early on, father and daughter catch the moon from the sky, play ball with it, and toss it back into the sky. Actually, you know what you’re in for the minute you register that title, with its twinkling metaphor.)

As in Kattradhu Thamizh, Ram goes all out to paint his protagonist a victim. He asks a friend for money to pay Chellamma’s school fees, and this friend mocks him as soon as he leaves (he doesn’t really leave, though, for how would we be manipulated if he weren’t around to listen to this mockery?). And later, when this friend fishes through his purse for a slip containing a job contact, we’re pointedly shown the thousand-rupee notes that he’s not giving Kalyani – and this allows Kalyani to make an observation about rich people. And software people, settled in Australia. And classrooms that make students dance to songs by the pop group Aqua while there are other kids playing homespun games that involve Tamil chants. And no, Kalyani doesn’t speak much English, and for money, he has to approach people who speak English and even French. (There’s surely some sort of irony in this film being produced by Gautham Vasudev Menon.)

And with all this, Chellamma never really develops into a flesh-and-blood character. It’s an interesting choice to not do what Taare Zameen Par did. The parents here are worried about their daughter being mandham, but they don’t seek to address this in any special way. And that is how it surely is in many households, where people just don’t know that something like dyslexia (if that is what this is) exists and that there are ways to get around it. But this makes the message at the end, about the importance of teachers, sound phony and tacked on. We’ve seen teachers being impatient with Chellamma but we’ve not seen her bloom under the eye of Evita Miss (Padmapriya, who has a baffling scene where she appears to be the victim of domestic abuse… or not). These portions as so hurried as to seem an afterthought, as if Ram realised that he’d better stop focusing on himself and get back to his daughter.

It would be easier if Ram made lazier films. He clearly thinks about what he’s doing, how he’s shaping his material. There are unusual point-of-view shots – in one from Stella Miss’s vantage, we see her necklace dangling in front of us. The sounds of transport – trains, planes, even a cargo liner – become a leitmotif. (Why, I haven’t been able to figure out.) And given the delightful scenes with Chellamma’s friend Nityashree (Sanjana), Ram does know how to write for children. There’s a sweet little scene where the two girls, on opposite sides of a window, talk about a fantasy life where Stella Miss is marched away by the police. But these stray stretches are undone by the director’s aggressiveness. He cannot make a reference to a cuckoo without noting its tendency to live in the nests of other birds, and then having Chellamma remark that they are like cuckoos because… they live in her grandfather’s house. That poor old man.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil