The crux of Kuttram Kadithal, which was recognised as Best Film in Tamil at the National Awards announced this year, is the blurring of the line between religion and humanity – rather, the blind belief in a higher power versus the more rational belief that humankind is capable of many of the things (retribution, absolution) we often associate with God, and is therefore as worthy of being worshipped. The latter was the credo of some Communists, most famously Maxim Gorky – indeed, his Mother is explicitly referenced here. It’s not just the number of long-suffering mothers in this movie – the wife (Durga Venugopal) of a school principal; the auto-driving mother (Sathya) of one of the children (Chezhiyan, played by Master Ajay, whose impishness is irresistible) at that school; the devout mother of Merlin (Radhika Prasiddha) who is first seen handing out religious pamphlets; or even Merlin herself, who has just married Manikandan (Sai Rajkumar). Our first glimpse of the couple is in a beautifully written romantic scene – he asks her when she’s going to give him children (put differently, when she will become a… mother). Consider Merlin’s profession too. As schoolteacher, she is, in a way, essentially a ‘mother’ to a number of children.
But more importantly, like the Gorky novel, this film is a call for revolution – the battleground, so to speak, is the school system. Or perhaps even the System. A key early scene belongs to Udayan (Pavel Navageethan; and what a coincidence that the actor’s name is that of a character in Mother), a hotheaded but fair-minded Communist who is Chezhiyan’s uncle. A car knocks down a spindly old man. Udayan, who witnesses the accident, refuses the bribe from the owner of the car. Instead, he demands another kind of compensation, that the ‘rich man’ drive the ‘poor man’ to the hospital, stay with him through the course of treatment, and bring him back to this very spot. This is a different kind of God from the one Merlin’s mother worships, but he’s doing some of the same things – meting out punishment for a kuttram/sin, and ensuring that justice prevails. And so that we don’t miss the Gorky connection, Udayan is seen reading Thaai, the Tamil translation of Mother.
These abstractions are rendered concrete through a story that revolves around Chezhiyan. The director Bramma takes his time drawing us in, and at first, we just see various people – Merlin and Manikandan; Merlin’s mother; the principal (Kulothungan) and his wife; Udayan – doing various seemingly disconnected things. These portions are wonderful. But slowly, almost like a foreshadowing, these lives begin to crisscross. Merlin’s mother, for instance, happens to be at the scene where Udayan is looking into the car accident, and later, Chezhiyan’s mother helps her pick up some papers that have spilled on the road. It’s all part of some grand plan by the Creator – note this director’s name. And over the Kaalai nila song, all these threads (and all these people) converge.
A word about the songs (the tuneful music is by Shankar Rangarajan). They are at odds with the rawness, the minimalism of the narrative – they’re too smooth, too lushly orchestrated, a little too eager to tug at the heart-strings. But Bramma uses them very well. He finds interesting visual parallels for the lyrics – a line like ovvoru naalin vannangal has children playing with colourful saris. And in a classroom sing-along, he gives us a sense of the entire school, which practically becomes a character, as ‘well-written’ as the people who inhabit it. We see the biology teacher and her class on reproduction. We see the maths teacher and her blackboard filled with formidable equations. We see the birthday girl who’s not in uniform, she’s wearing a new dress. We see kids kneeling down outside class. We catch a glimpse of chemistry lab. We overhear some banter in the teachers’ common room. We even see a ‘substitute miss.’ Manikandan’s office, too, is similarly detailed, with a Tamil-speaking Sardar who’s not treated like a caricature – he’s nothing special, just one of the many non-Tamilians who’ve made Chennai their home. This is fine filmmaking. It immerses us in its world.
The other immersion is in the world above, signs of which are everywhere. (Not since Kadal has there been such overt religiosity on screen.) It’s there in the words on a sticker on a truck’s windshield, and in the principal’s invocation of “aandavan.” It’s there in the image of the crucifix inside Merlin’s cupboard, and in the cross reflected in the mirror of a scooter. (In a rather overblown directorial touch – and there a quite a few, like one with a plastic bag – we see the ‘Objects in the mirror are closer…’ warning; God maybe closer than you think.) It’s there in Udayan’s threat to Merlin’s mother that he’s not the kind to “turn the other cheek.” It’s there in the physician who dismisses a nurse when she declares the outcome of a surgery as “miraculous” – as a man of Science, he is the healer, he is God.
And it’s there in Merlin’s guilt. At first, it isn’t guilt – just an unnamed feeling. She has, after all, married a man named Manikandan, and her mother, clearly, does not approve. (There’s a mild Alaipaayuthey feel to these portions.) But she’s still her mother’s daughter. We see her Christian compassion when she insists that the rat that’s caught in a trap is set free on the road and not drowned, as her husband suggests. She tells Manikandan in jest, “Nee Christian-aa irundhirukkalaamo-nu thonundu.” But later, when she gets into trouble, serious trouble, she frantically wipes away the vermilion mark on her forehead, and we wonder if she thinks all this is happening because of her going against her faith. “Nee Christian-aa irundhirukkalaamo -nu thonundu” may no longer be just a half-thought. Her self-flagellation is depicted through a man on the streets whipping himself for money. Little of this is said, but we take a look at her mother and we know the kind of ultra-religious household she was raised in, and the things we often rebel against or reject come back to haunt us during life’s dire moments.
Up to a point, Bramma exhibits superb control. His reveals are slow, he trusts the audience. At first, it seems stupid and borderline-irresponsible that the principal and his wife go to such lengths to protect Merlin, but later, in a devastating scene, we see why. The actors are marvellous – it’s hard to single out anyone, but Sathya’s pinched face broke my heart. The dialogues are a natural mix of Tamil and English, and they have the snap of real-life speech. “Orey coffee… full-a scan pannitten,” says the principal of Manikandan, as if he were appraising the future husband of his own daughter. (But then, maybe he is.) And Bramma is careful not to take sides. The film boils down to a battle between Merlin and Udayan (or the sides of God and Man-as-God), and Bramma keeps things on an even keel. If Merlin loses her temper and slaps a child at school, Udayan loses his temper and slaps a man who tries to advise him. Anyone can lose it in a moment. There are smaller parallels too – a truck driver hands Merlin a bag of food, like Udayan does to his sister, and the backstories of both Merlin and Udayan are compressed into the Chinnanchiru kiliye song late in the film. (And what a great decision to save these details for this point. We watch the death of Chezhiyan’s father and we see the little boy clinging to his uncle’s arm… An entire relationship is laid out in a split-second visual.)
But somewhere in the second half, Bramma loses his grip and runs out of things to do. He keeps delaying the inevitable (it’s not hard to guess, given the religious nature of the film) – and we keep killing time with a koothu performance and a detour at a shady-looking lodge. There are surely better ways to portray the unravelling of Merlin’s mind than to have her run away and set a panic-stricken Manikandan in pursuit. These melodramatic contrivances belong in a different movie. It’s almost as if these stretches were supervised by a different director, one who’s decided to abandon all the subtlety and restraint shown so far and get all messagey with a megaphone, with a solo violin sawing away in the soundtrack. A scene in a cafe between a journalist and an IT professional is a particular low point. For some reason, our filmmakers just can’t think of new ideas when it comes to depicting the media. The press-conference ending is a disgrace. It’s true that Mother isn’t just a story, it’s propaganda too. But novels have many, many pages and a lot of interiority. Trying to achieve similar ends in a couple of hours makes one look less like a filmmaker than a pamphleteer.
- Kuttram Kadithal = punishment for a crime
- Mother = see here
- Kaalai nila = morning moon
- ovvoru naalin vannangal = daily colours
- aandavan = the dude up there
- “Nee Christian-aa irundhirukkalaamo-nu thonundu.” = Maybe you should have been Christian.
- “Orey coffee… full-a scan pannitten” = Just a cup of coffee, and I knew what he was all about.
- Chinnanchiru kiliye = see here
- koothu = see here
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