Any film with the word “kadhal” in the title is usually served in one of three flavours – a general romance; its cutesy variant, the rom-com; or what might be called the rom-trag, where Boy and Girl jump off a cliff or are hacked to pieces or <insert preferred mode of death/separation here>. Nalan Kumarasamy’s Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum is (d) none of the above. The story gets going when Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian) loses her IT job in a recession. She has to give up the posh high-rise apartment she shared with roomies and move into a matchbox of a flat, past a low entrance that bears the warning: Kunindhu sellavum. It’s a constant reminder of just how much she’s come down in life. Another reminder lives in the opposite flat, a rowdy named Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi). A less adventurous film would chart their unlikely love story – opposites attract, et cetera. Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, though, invites us to ponder this question: What kind of relationship can there be between a girl who reads A Brief History of Time and a guy who’s just been released from jail? This is, in many ways, an anti-romance. It’s no accident that the film Yazhini and Kathir end up watching on TV is… Kaadhalikka Neramillai. Who has time for love?
There are other things to think about. Yazhini needs a job right now, but she also harbours a vague ambition that she cannot put into precise words. Kathir says that’s okay. Goals should not be easily understood. The film is filled with these lovely little non-dialoguey half-thoughts, which crop up when real people converse. I loved how Yazhini’s father reacted to her running away from their home in Vizhuppuram, with the calmest of video messages informing the family about her decision. He catches her at the railway station and says, “Unakku enna venum-nu adam pudichaa dhaane adhoda importance engalukku puriyum?” This doesn’t sound like a line from a movie dad but from someone you may find at home, reading a newspaper in an easy chair. Kathir has a goal too. He wants to own a bar. And till that happens, till he gets rich, he’s got to watch what he spends. Note the scene where he pays for Yazhini’s breakfast and later asks her to pay him back. It isn’t just a funny moment about a man who wanted to show off in front of the hotel manager. It also showcases his desperation.
Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, then, is about two ships – or maybe we should say catamarans – passing in the night, on a stormy sea. And we get an answer to what kind of relationship could exist between them. Kathir and Yazhini become each other’s support system, a kind of lifeline – for they seem to have no one else to turn to. One of the curious aspects of this film is how it seals these two off. Kathir never seems to hang out with his gangster buddies. (A good thing, in a way. The scenes of crime are so disconnected from the narrative, they seem to belong in a completely different movie.) As for Yazhini, her roomies are now in other cities – they never call or offer help, job-wise or otherwise. Even her boyfriend vanishes. Yazhini and Kathir are practically marooned.
There’s a lot of nice filmmaking here – though how much is from the South Korean original, My Dear Desperado, I do not know. Yazhini’s entire arc with her ex is so delicately handled, we barely notice it. One moment, he’s prodding her with a pen to wake her up from a daydream during an office meeting. Then, they’re sharing lunch. Then he’s gone. In keeping with the film’s philosophy, this whole story – the only actual love story here– is dismissed in a matter of minutes. Then there’s that odd touch with the Mariyan song, associated with Yazhini’s interviews. The film’s most moving scene is the little stretch where Yazhini, after losing her job, digs a hole in the sand and buries her ID card. It’s like she’s burying a life. But apart from a handful of scenes, I wasn’t particularly drawn to anything or anyone. I felt nothing for Yazhini when she was humiliated by a couple of interviewers. Many bits sound like they might have been funny – one where a woman demonstrates how to use pepper spray, another where Kathir encounters an insomniac. But on screen, I couldn’t see the point. Kadhalum takes a very long time to find its rhythms, and the first half, especially, just sits there, animated solely by Santhosh Narayanan’s score. The composer may be getting too tied down to a sound – lush, quirky, local – but at least it throbs with life.
And for a character study, we get very little by way of character development. Yazhini gets a line where she says she hates hostels. Kathir gets a line where he asks the manager of a grocery store not to hand two young shoplifters over to the cops, because once these kids see the inside of a jail, there’s no hope for them. We sense that he’s speaking from experience. But that’s not enough to sustain what feels like a very long movie. The casting doesn’t help. As much as I appreciate Vijay Sethupathi seeking out varied roles and using his star power to lure audiences to films they may not see otherwise, his I-can’t-be-bothered persona doesn’t let us into Kathir’s head at all. (It doesn’t help that we just saw this actor as a rowdy.) And though his comic act towards the end, pretending to be Yazhini’s boyfriend, has its moments, it yanks us out of the undercurrent of melancholy that’s everywhere else. Madonna Sebastian is a nice presence, but she looks too vacuously model-pretty – I was reminded of how odd Catherine Tresa seemed in Madras. Why don’t these rooted films look towards earthy actresses like Nandita or Aishwarya Rajesh? Yazhini is supposed to represent the little people, who study in obscure little engineering colleges and find the going rough in big cities. Looking at the immaculately made-up and attired Madonna Sebastian, you think: Really?
As second films go, Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum has to count as a letdown, but give Nalan Kumarasamy this much – he hasn’t made Soodhu Kavvum II, and he hasn’t gone commercial with a vengeance either. He isn’t just reshaping the Kollywood romance here. He’s also reshaping the sarakku scene, by having the hero get drunk with the heroine, instead of a male friend. He’s also reshaping the hero himself. Hearing the song Oru oorula orey oru veeran over Kathir striding into a bar to bash up some goons, we expect macho fireworks, a fight scene worthy of that song, worthy of a hero. But Kathir gets beaten up instead. Walking out, I wondered if this angle wouldn’t have made for an interesting movie on its own, without the crutch of the South Korean romance. But I have to admit that the Kathir-Yazhini scenes accrue weight towards the closing portions, so much so that we find ourselves completing their stories in our heads during the drive home. Just as the film comes to an end, we feel it’s beginning.
- Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum = Love, too, shall pass
- kadhal = love
- Kunindhu sellavum = Duck before you enter.
- Kaadhalikka Neramillai = see here
- Unakku enna venum-nu adam pudichaa dhaane adhoda importance engalukku puriyum?” = If you don’t throw a tantrum about what you want, how are we to know?
- My Dear Desperado = see here
- Mariyan = see here
- Madras = see here
- sarakku = booze
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