Arun Kumar, the writer-director of the evocatively titled Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, has a genuine feel for humour. He doesn’t deal with tiresome punch lines. He opts for organically grown laughs, rising from the situation his characters find themselves in. Take the scene where the benevolent landlord (Jayaprakash) of a village walks in on a woman using the telephone in his house. (Everything he has, the villagers are free to use.) She’s received news of a death, and she’s weeping, and the ladies gathered around her are wailing – and the minute the landlord walks in, they stop. He assesses the situation, signals them to proceed, and sits in a chair in a corner. It’s late in the night, and amidst all the noise, he drops off. His handyman Peedai (Balasaravanan) enters the room, sees all these keening women around his motionless master, and assumes the worst. He begins to wail too – but just for an instant. The gag isn’t protracted. It’s funny because of the knife-sharp timing with which the landlord wakes up and ends Peedai’s misery. But the fact that this joke has played out doesn’t mean that the scene is over. The next joke is around the corner. Peedai turns quickly to a woman near him and joins her in the breast-beating. He doesn’t even know who died.
The promise of this early scene is fulfilled intermittently. The comic track with Peedai is pure gold. Balasaravanan doesn’t mug for the camera, and he doesn’t oversell a joke. He has the dazed look of someone who still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that he has a special power, and just seeing him say his lines and witness the aftermath of these lines is funnier than anything we’ve watched in while. At other times, the comedy isn’t as rip-roaring, but in a mellower key, like in the scenes with the landlord learning to drive the Premier Padmini that’s come into his possession or the one where the driver Murugesan (Vijay Sethupathi) covers the car with hay because he fears it will be taken away. (The pleasure these villagers feel when inside this car is exquisitely evoked in a shot where its back seat fills the entire screen, as if it were the Titanic.) The gentle idyll in these stretches is of a piece with a film whose pace suggests someone who’s had a heavy lunch and is fighting off a noonday nap. In these frantic times, it’s a relief to see a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take his time to tell his story.
In this and in other ways – and despite the “new-gen” excitement that has surrounded this film, owing to its origins as a beloved short – Pannaiyarum Padminiyum is sweetly old-fashioned. Excepting the landlord’s covetous daughter (Neelima Rani), everyone is amiable and filled with the noblest of intentions, and when they’re beset by bad thoughts, they’re quickly shown the error of their ways – as in the scenes where Murugesan sulks at having to teach the landlord how to drive. What if he loses his job, and more importantly, the opportunity to swan around in the car? But he sees, quickly, that the people he works for – the landlord and his wife Chellamma (Thulasi, costumed perfectly in crumpled saris and one-size-too-loose blouses) – love him like a son. Sometimes, the emphasis on everyone’s goodness gets a bit much. You may find yourself doing an eye-roll when a passer-by returns to Murugesan the car keys he thinks he’s lost. But what else can we expect from a movie where even the automobile – with is headlight-orbs and the V of a smile in its logo, just below the genial declaration of “PAL” – is quite possibly the friendliest contraption you’ve ever seen outside of a Pixar animated movie?
There are occasional glimpses of a sliver of ambition. Just as the landlord’s daughter covets things in her father’s house, and just as Murugesan covets his exclusivity as a driver, a mechanic who appears later is shown to covet the exclusivity of his job, and – in the film’s most graceless and baldly manipulative subplot – a kid covets a ride in the car. But if these echoes are intentional, the director is right not to amplify them. They’re just there, little splotches of colour on characters.
Then again, after a while, we begin to feel that these developments have been dreamed up simply to pad out the running time – and you need a lot of padding to expand an under-10-minute short into a 150-minute movie. In the short film, the story was about a landlord’s love for his car. Now, it’s about the landlord’s love for his wife, with the car playing a silent supporting part. It’s about the landlord’s (and his wife’s) equation with Murugesan. And because Vijay Sethupathi has become a feet-hands-face star, who cannot be stranded without a romantic interest, it’s about Murugesan’s love for Malar (the expressive Iyshwarya Rajesh, a tonic for nerves frayed by the alabaster automatons we usually get as heroines). It’s inevitable that scenes and characters are added to make a feature film from a short, but these scenes and characters, sometimes, feel tacked on. They feel like editing-room discards that are rightfully DVD extras.
A bigger problem is the rampant sentimentality. Arun Kumar is so understated in his comedy, it’s a bit of a shock to see the heavy-handed treatment of the emotional moments, replete with background music that all but holds a gun to our heads and demands a response. At first, we smile at the kid collecting 10-paise coins for a ride in the car, and we smile at the warm, playful relationship between the landlord and his wife. (The “plot,” if we were to call it that, pivots on his desire to drive her to the temple on their wedding anniversary.) But soon, we come to scenes where the child is slapped by his mother and, worse, where Chellamma wonders aloud what her husband will do if she dies. It’s a testament to the performances of Jayaprakash and Thulasi that we don’t turn against their characters after being dragged through such scenes, where they’re asked to deliver a few too many meaningful looks to the camera. (We also get the scene where a character wipes away a tear after realising how good and kind and big-hearted someone is.) And when the car is taken away, the yellow flowers that used to fall on it now fall on the ground, almost like a ritual lament. If young directors, the great hope of our cinema, resort to rehashing these silent-movie tropes, then what do we have to look forward to?
But at least with another old trope, the director knows what he’s doing. The next time a filmmaker defends an insipid song picturisation by saying “What else can you do in a falling-in-love number?”, we can point him to the Pesuren pesuren kaadhal mozhi song sequence, where Murugesan falls for Malar in the midst of preparations for a funeral. There’s grief all around, people are crying and consoling each other, but all Murugesan can see is this lovely girl he’s falling for, and even as tears course down her cheeks, he cannot stop smiling at the feelings in his heart. The sequence is a triumph. We rarely get music videos that convey one emotion well enough, and here’s a song that casually straddles two contradictory emotions, sadness and happiness, the tune balanced perfectly between dirge and romantic ballad. And it’s a lovely touch that Onakkaaga porandhene, the heavily promoted number that made us think of young love, is dedicated to the landlord and Chellamma. They deserve this spot of sunshine, too often denied to seniors in our cinema – and it’s a bracing sign that it’s come from a young, first-time filmmaker.
* Pannaiyarum Padminiyum = The landlord and his Padmini
* Pesuren pesuren kaadhal mozhi = I speak the language of love…
* Onakkaaga porandhene = I was born for you…
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