The Chennai TamBrahm milieu in RS Prasanna’s Kalyana Samayal Sadham – a curiously old-fashioned title for a film that’s very modern in many ways – is presented with a loving insider-knowingness that’s not been seen on screen since… maybe, Aaha. The usual jokes about girls being tutored in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam (and boys in playing the mridangam) acquire a fresh sheen because we’re not laughing at them but with them. These characters aren’t the besh-besh stereotypes we’re often saddled with. They’re people who’ve moved on with the times – and yet, they stoop slightly under the weight of tradition. When Raghu (Prasanna) comes to see a prospective bride – Meera (Lekha Washington) – he suggests that they go out for a cup of coffee and talk. Her father squirms. He knows it would be terribly old-fashioned of him to refuse, and he reaches a compromise by asking a couple of kids in the household to “show Raghu the way to the coffee shop.” (Raghu knows, very well, where it is.)
The film depicts the dilemma of being young today and having to uphold the expectations that come from belonging to a very old culture. On the one hand, it’s the world of Facebook and priests who conduct rituals over Skype, and on the other, there are still cheques to be presented to marriage halls for big, fat (and very stressful) Indian weddings that neither bride nor groom are particularly invested in. They’re in this only because their parents want it. And then they find themselves in a fix. There’s a problem in the plumbing department – and since this is a family publication, suffice it to say that a PowerPoint presentation at an office, the next day, shows drooping line graphs. How do you portray a dramatic (and icky) issue in a light-hearted manner? Vicky Donor walked that tightrope exquisitely. Kalyana Samayal Sadham sets its sights lower. It wants to be little more than an innocuous, pleasant, crowd-pleasing entertainer, so you can’t fault it for what it isn’t – but there’s a lingering sense of what-could-have-been.
I couldn’t buy the contrivance of Meera’s father being completely unperturbed by this problem. And the film reaches for a few too-easy laughs – involving quacks and miracle cures (which are, however, debunked). I wished the splendid supporting cast (‘Crazy’ Mohan, Neelu, Delhi Ganesh, ‘Kathadi’ Ramamoorthy) had been given more to do – how often do you see all of them together? But more crucially, there’s never a sense of anything really being at stake. The director is right in wanting to avoid melodrama, but he veers too far in the other direction. Practically everyone is cordial, good-natured. It’s a refreshing change that Raghu and Meera aren’t opposites who snarl at each other, first, and then fall in love, but their extreme amiability presents a different kind of problem. There is no bite in their big fight, which is so low-key that it hardly registers – though it’s followed by a lovely (and equally low-key) conversation between Raghu and his friend (Raghav, playing the rare NRI who’s not a cliché).
The most remarkable aspect of this spat, however, is that it pivots on the word “wuss.” There is no attempt to translate it for the general audiences, ranging from ages six through sixty, and from the toniest A-centre viewer to the sweat-soaked farmer in a C-centre hamlet. This attitude – if you get it you get it; if you don’t you don’t – is a bracing sign for cinema from young filmmakers, and it’s possible when you keep your budgets low. Better still, the entire falling-in-love track – charted through the beautiful song Mella sirithaai – is outlined through Facebook messages in Tanglish. Too often, in the name of compromise, we end up with cinema that tries to please everybody and ends up satisfying nobody. For all its niggling problems, Kalyana Samayal Sadham doesn’t make that mistake. It knows who its audience is, and it speaks their language, secure in the knowledge that organising sangeet ceremonies or being cool with your fiancée in a backless dress doesn’t make one a “lesser” Tamilian.
And the leads keep us watching. Lekha Washington doesn’t have much to do, but she glides through the proceedings effortlessly, and the character of Meera strikes a major blow for the Tamil-film heroine by asking for a glass of wine and, at a later point, admitting that sex is important to her. This is an unapologetic representation of an upper-class urban woman. As for Prasanna, you want to build a small shrine for him simply for agreeing to play this part in a cultural climate where heroism is synonymous with machismo. He’s wonderful in the scene where he sees that Meera has finally accepted his Facebook-friend request. He’s earned it, and he doesn’t pump a fist in the air and go crazy – there’s just a small smile. This is a subtler breed of hero, who doesn’t need to advertise his emotions in neon lights, and whose masculinity is defined not by his prowess in the sack but by the fact that he lets his woman be who she is, who she wants to be. We’re not likely to see the likes of Raghu or Meera in a hurry, so I forgave them their overblown, la-la-land fantasy moment at the end. They deserve it.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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