You may know Ramesh Thilak as the sidekick from films like Soodhu Kavvum. He’s the guy who looks like Prabhu Deva’s long-lost younger brother. Orange Mittai, directed by Biju Viswanath, is his coming-out party. He plays an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) named Sathya, and the film gets going when he responds to a 108 call from an elderly man named Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi), who’s suffered a heart attack. Or has he? When Sathya and Arumugam (the ambulance driver, played by Arumugam Bala) reach Kailasam’s home, we get canted camera angles and horror-film music. The pictures on the wall – of zamindar-like personages – hint at what once was. But now, there are overgrown weeds outside and cobwebs inside. Then we see that it isn’t a haunted house so much as a house haunted by memories. Loneliness in one’s advanced years is its own kind of horror.
The film is basically a road movie. It’s also a drama about fathers and sons. Sathya lost his father recently. Kailasam keeps hinting at a son who’s a journalist. Anyone familiar with the map of a road movie will be able to guess that Sathya and Kailasam will find, in each other, a surrogate father and son. But Orange Mittai isn’t as banal as that description sounds. It deals with something we’ve rarely (if ever) come across in our cinema – how it’s easier to be a good son to someone else’s father, how it’s easier to be a good father to someone else’s son. All too often, we hurt (and end up being hurt by) the ones we’re closest to, and sometimes it’s just easier to bond with outsiders who aren’t freighted with familial baggage.
The pleasant surprise of Orange Mittai is that it doesn’t belabour these points. There’s no melodrama. There’s not even much drama. There’s a miscalculation at the end – an emotional moment that isn’t quite built up to. But as with the rest of the film, this moment too is laced with a comic touch. An emotional Sathya embraces Kailasam, but the latter freezes, hands stuck to his side. Like many Indian fathers of a particular generation, Kailasam may crave an emotional connection, but not so much, not this kind. I laughed out loud at his discomfiture. Full credit to Vijay Sethupathi for playing this much-older man, but I got the feeling that the role may have been better served by someone who’s actually that age. Vijay Sethupathi puffs his stomach out and streaks his hair with silver – it still comes off like stunt casting. But Kailasam, as written, strikes a chord. It’s hard not to feel for him when he tells Sathya, “Unakkum oru naal vayasaagum… Neeyum enna maari aave.”
Like many people forced to fend for themselves after a point, Kailasam is an eccentric. The film, unfortunately, oversells this aspect, which is highlighted by a really odd-sounding background score (Justin Prabhakaran). You may recall Balumahendra’s last film, Thalaimuraigal – the old man there had spent so much time alone that he’d forgotten how to be around others. His eccentricities were all-too-human. But here, Kailasam is treated like a “character.” When Sathya responds to his distress call, Kailasam makes him wait – he has to first powder himself, then comb his hair… Much later, he begins dancing on the street to the unstoppable beats of Adiye manam nilluna nikkadhadi. The scene goes on and on.
Then again, maybe this is this film’s answer to the songs and fights we get as audience sops in the more commercial movies. Because there’s very little masala otherwise. Even Sathya’s subplot with Kavya (Aashritha) is very understated. There are no duets. There’s no this-is-how-they-fell-in-love. There’s just a brief flashback to a time they sat across each other in a restaurant, having ice-creams and trading endearments – she calls him karuppaa, he keeps calling her di. We see another father in these scenes – Kavya’s. He’s interesting. It’s clear he doesn’t care much for Sathya, but he probably knows his daughter is going to have her way, so he insults Sathya with silk-sheathed jabs. We get another father-daughter angle when Sathya and Arumugam are forced to pick up a second patient. That man, too, is having problems with his girlfriend’s father, and in an inspired touch, we see Sathya mouthing the latter’s dialogue – after all, these lines describe his situation as well.
Some of these scenes are handled flatly – like something you’d see on TV. And the primary emotional arc isn’t traversed too convincingly. There are a few times the director overreaches – a showy shot involving shadows that practically comes with the subtitle “director’s touch,” or the song that refers, distractingly, to Macbeth (“sound and fury signifying nothing”). But mostly, he keeps it simple. The film slowly grows on you because the content works. Save for an interlude with cops, all other detours – like a delightful non sequitur with a thief – are integrated smoothly into the narrative. (The film runs just 100 minutes and change). Sathya gets a second subplot, this time with a supervisor who keeps yelling at him over the phone (we never see him) – this adds colour to his character. And there’s the stretch that shows us that EMTs are the minnows of the medical-industry food chain – doctors treat them like dirt. Sathya’s face falls, but there’s no sentimentality. He’s calmly accepting of his lot.
Ramesh Thilak doesn’t act in the sense we usually define acting, but he really sells Sathya. He gets two great lines. He tells someone that he didn’t realise his father’s worth until the latter died, and he asks the listener not to repeat his mistake. He says this matter-of-factly – there are no tears. But his line brought a lump in the throat: Manasu ennamo theduthu. And when he has a spat with Kavya, he tells her to be practical. If she wants to break it off, she should. Thevayillaama love pannittome-nu kalyanam pannittu kashtappadathey. The title – mercifully unexplained – may refer to candy but the film is a quiet ode to the bittersweet life.
- mittai = candy
- Soodhu Kavvum = see here
- zamindar = see here
- “Unakkum oru naal vayasaagum… Neeyum enna maari aave.” = You too will age one day. You’ll become like me.
- Thalaimuraigal = see here
- karuppaa = blackie
- di = see here
- Macbeth (“sound and fury signifying nothing”) = see here
- “Manasu ennamo theduthu.” = The heart searches for something…
- “Thevayillaama love pannittome-nu kalyanam pannittu kashtappadathey.” = Don’t marry someone just because you fell for him and then repent.
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