Clichés are clichés for a reason. If used well – and with a twist – they give us the comfort of the familiar, and yet, we feel we’re seeing something fresh. It’s the bedrock of mainstream cinema. To draw large audiences, you cannot veer too much from a fairly trodden path, but the little tweaks you give the material – those twists – can make the effort seem pathbreaking. Raju Murugan’s Cuckoo is essentially a compilation of clichés. The initial repulsion that slips, gradually, into affection and attraction. The one-sided love. The love triangle. The insensitive brother who strives to keep the couple apart. The well-meaning friends who are practically family. None of this is new.
The difference is in the twist. Over the years, we’ve seen love stories featuring many permutations of disabilities. In Raajapaarvai, the man was blind. In Kai Kodukkum Kai, the woman was blind. In Kaasi, the man was blind, the woman was mute. Here, both man and woman are blind. The last time Tamil cinema featured a similarly disabled couple on screen was probably in Uyarndhavargal, where Kamal Haasan and Sujatha were both deaf-mute. Or maybe Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kadhai, with developmentally challenged lovers. This creates a unique kind of narrative tension, where one half of the couple cannot compensate for what the other half doesn’t have. What if husband and wife went to the supermarket and both forgot their wallets? We’re nudged, instantly, into drama.
But that will have to wait. First, we simply get to hang around Thamizh (Dinesh) and Sudhandhira Kodi (Malavika). He sells knickknacks on local trains. She dreams of becoming a teacher. In the early portions, they’re not so much blind people as… people. They’re not saints. They like playing pranks (sometimes vicious ones), and when punked, they seek revenge. They’re inspired by the movies and they re-enact scenes, like the one where you climb a telephone pole to speak to a lover through her bedroom window. And they don’t cower in corners, mindful of their condition, fearful of the world. They stride confidently. They inhabit crowded railway stations, and in trains, they stand near the exits, the way brash college kids do. And they have friends (the actors playing Ilango and Sangeetha give lovely performances) who are either blind or who don’t treat them as if they are blind.
The people around Thamizh and Sudhandhira Kodi are nicely drawn. The transgender who sees that Thamizh has over-powdered his face and dusts off the excess. The essentially good-hearted cop who still steals from Thamizh. The too-good-to-be-true traveller who doesn’t prove to be a leering exploiter. The leader of a drama company who models himself after Chandrababu and cannot help collecting wives. (In the film’s funniest moment, he calls the eldest one… “First.”) The other actors in the company, who mimic MGR and Vijay and Ajith. These characters infuse the film with colours that Thamizh and Sudhandhira Kodi cannot see.
As for sounds, the director leans on Ilayaraja. For a while now, it’s been depressing to see how the maestro’s music has been reduced to a lazy prop, a good-luck totem, or a cheap punch line – the worst offender being the recent film (so memorable that the name slips me now) whose soundtrack burst into Sundari neeyum when a sleazy boss set eyes on his curvy Malayali secretary. Cuckoo restores the balance. There’s genuine context for the songs, Thamizh being a singer in that drama company. And the songs are used to bolster the narrative, as when Oru jeevan azhaithathu plays over Sudhandhira Kodi’s realisation that Thamizh loves her. (He, of course, is the very manifestation of the next line: oru jeevan thudithathu.)
So you have a terrific premise. You’ve populated the narrative with interesting characters. (Dinesh and Malavika give earnest, if somewhat overwrought, performances.) You have great music. (Santhosh Narayanan’s songs, especially Kodayila mazhai pola, are beautiful.) Now you need to pull together these building blocks and assemble a compelling movie. That’s where the problems begin.
The film is structured with a self-important framing device, where a journalist narrates the story of Thamizh and Sudhandhira Kodi through his own story. (The only purpose this serves is to pad out the already long running time.) And when we first see Thamizh, it’s as a face on a missing-person poster. We expect some procedural effort in his being found, through this journalist’s actions, but his discovery is casually accidental – and that’s how much of the film is. There are enough lost-and-found coincidences to propel a couple of Manmohan Desai capers, and there is a similar disdain for logic. The geography is never clear and we’re often left wondering how this person ended up there, how that person made it here. This isn’t a problem in a mindless masala movie. Here, these contrivances yank us out, making us think about things we shouldn’t be thinking about.
We should be inside this story, neck-deep, and these logical lapses could have been overlooked if there was enough emotional logic – but there too, we’re left stranded. We never really get into these characters. Sudhandhira Kodi, for instance, rebounds so quickly from heartbreak that that plot point feels redundant – why, after all, should we invest in something with such little payoff? And instead of the intimate, the director goes for the epic – with thunderous melodrama (accompanied, sometimes, by thunderous bursts of background music) to evoke emotions in us. It’s not enough that Sudhandhira Kodi meets the fiancée of the man she wants to marry. The woman has to give this poor blind kid a bag of old clothes. And she has to take a picture of this poor blind kid to post on Facebook and get many likes. And it’s not enough that Sudhandhira Kodi expresses a liking for another man and breaks Thamizh’s heart. Thamizh’s mother has to die at the same time, so we can be presented with visuals of him around the funeral pyre.
It’s hard to care after a point when so many scenes are structured for the explicit reason of putting the leads in danger. It’s explicit manipulation, like the villain dangling an infant from the top floor. It’s tears at gunpoint. Why doesn’t Thamizh take a sighted companion – he has so many – with him when he carries such a large amount of cash? Because if he did, the chances of him getting into a soup are not as great. And the conceit of “hearing” things across a distance – across a street filled with traffic, across a railway station filled with every imaginable noise – might have fit into a film whose pitch was different, several notches higher, but in this relatively realistic environment, it remains just that: a conceit. Ideas that might have sounded good inside the head or on paper appear overdone on screen. The best stretch, finally, is the film’s opening, when we hear and see what the leads hear and see, a black screen (not counting the credits) and the voices of parents, saying prayers and singing lullabies. Had the rest of Cuckoo worked at this level, we might have had a masterpiece.
* Oru jeevan azhaithathu = someone beckoned to me
* oru jeevan thudithathu = someone twitched with pain
* Kodayila mazhai pola = like the rain in summer
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