Prakash Raj’s Un Samayalarayil is the love story of a man who is 90 and a woman who is 75. At least, that’s what it might look like to viewers of Tamil cinema who – exceptions like Pannaiyarum Padminiyum apart – are force-fed a diet of young love. (With that title, it’s hard to resist the culinary metaphor.) Actually, Kalidasan (Prakash Raj) is 45, and Gowri (Sneha) is in her 30s – and Un Samayalarayil is noteworthy just for proving that it is possible to make and obtain a wide release for a romance that is simmered on a slow fire and allowed to age. In the refreshing early portions, we aren’t invited to pity these singletons. They seem just fine. They have the company of family and friends (among them a well-assimilated gay man), and more importantly, they enjoy their work. He is, like his name suggests, a lover of antiquity – he’s an archaeologist. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume that he prefers dealing with the dead. And she’s a dubbing artist, which is exactly the kind of profession for someone with such a recessive personality. She’s content being heard.
That is what happens when, due to circumstances arising from a misdialed call, they begin to have conversations on the phone. They discover a shared passion for food, and she – despite protests that she’s not a very good cook – follows his instructions and pulls off an elaborate multi-tier cake. Un Samayalarayil is an adaptation of the Malayalam hit Salt N’Pepper, but it also recalls Cheeni Kum, which was a similar brew of two relatively older people discovering that they had a sweet tooth for one another. And so that the screen doesn’t begin to resemble something that Kalidasan might have excavated, we have a younger couple –Naveen (Tejus) and Meghna (Samyuktha Hornad). Due to reasons too involved to get into, Naveen and Meghna fall in love and in doing so, they sabotage the older romance. This is where the plot begins to curdle. We begin with a man and a woman who are united by their love for food, and we end up with a story of star-crossed lovers – we’ve jumped, in a heartbeat, from gastronomy to astronomy.
The problem, primarily, is one of tone. It becomes increasingly hard to figure out whether the film is a light comedy of errors or a more serious meditation on what Kalidasan eventually calls an “inferiority complex.” Naveen and Meghna come off as selfish – cruel, even – but we’re asked to treat them as we would merry pranksters. There’s no sense of consequence, nothing at stake. As a result, Un Samayalarayil ends up half-baked. I wanted to know more about Kalidasan. How does an archaeologist develop such a fine taste for cooking? And why is the second half so bereft of food? Emotions have to be built through character development (and not just through reaction shots) – you cannot play a sad song (the music is by Ilayaraja) and expect that feeling to settle over the rest of the film. Worse, we’re dragged through a completely redundant subplot about a kidnapped Adivasi man. It’s a pity. We walk out hungry for more.
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