An early scene in Nelson Venkatesan’s Oru Naal Koothu depicts the first step in an arranged-marriage scenario – the girl is presented to a young man and his family. The song on the soundtrack threw me for a second. It’s a retuned version of Gopalakrishna Bharathi’s Eppo varuvaaro, and it seemed like preposterous overkill, comparing Lakshmi’s desire for a groom to a devotee’s yearning for salvation at Shiva’s feet. But slowly, Lakshmi’s plight does assume monumental proportions. Years pass. Prospective grooms come and go. And yet, nothing. Her father rejects everyone. At one point, Lakshmi runs into a friend from college, a girl who encouraged her to grow a spine, not be so timid around men. Now, she’s divorced. It’s not a message. It’s just a glimpse into a different kind of marriage. The friend has a bus to catch, but Lakshmi pleads with her to stay. She’s tired of being at home, with no one to talk to. So they sit and chat. They make a lesbian joke and laugh. This isn’t about political correctness. This is about Lakshmi needing to laugh.
Then we have Sathish (Ramesh Thilak) and Sushila (Riythvika), who work as RJs – but they’re not together, at least not at the moment. Like Lakshmi, Sushila wants to get married and is tired of questions about why she’s still single. But unlike Lakshmi, she has a profile up on a web site. There’s hope –marriage may just be a mouse-click away. You’d think Kavya (Nivetha Pethuraj) has it easier – she has a boyfriend, Raj (Dinesh), even if he’s “poor boy” to her “rich girl.” But again, problems. He’s not ready for marriage. And how long can she wait? She begins to wonder. She loves Raj now, but will she be happy with him in the future? Should she wait it out? Should she move on? He accuses her: “En mele unakku nambikkai illai.” She says, “Un situation mele enakku nambikkai illai.” It’s a great line, a very perceptive line – it underlines the difference between being romantic and being practical. The dialogues are low-key, measured, casual, conversational. Raj admits to something I’ve never heard from a leading man in a Tamil film. He says he doesn’t like his family very much, but he’s helpless, he’s bound to them – because they like him. Oru Naal Koothu is the rare Tamil film that portrays human relationships as necessary, yet complicated.
You’d think Kavya’s father is the bad guy. After all, he produces before her someone from their social class, an “America maapillai.” But the film doesn’t judge him. He’s just presenting his daughter with an option. It’s still her choice. The film doesn’t judge him – and neither does it judge the man who, after his engagement, has doubts and wants to call it off. A lesser film would have made him a cad who smokes and sleeps around. Here, he’s just scared, confused. After last week’s Iraivi, here is another film that’s about women and yet treats its flawed men with compassion. (And there’s much more of K Balachander here than in Iraivi, which opened with a dedication to the late filmmaker.) Oru Naal Koothu keeps intercutting between these stories (there’s also the character played by Charlie, a middle-aged man who never married) – and these transitions are beautifully done, a combination of a good screenplay and good editing. The director opens with high drama (Raj is missing!) and he closes with high drama (an accident! a bride stranded!). But elsewhere, despite the numerous opportunities for raised voices and tears, the director keeps an even tone, delegating the hysterics to the background score (Justin Prabhakaran, whose songs, especially Adiye azhage, are quite lovely). Beats of the thavil punctuate scenes like 48-point-size exclamation points.
The women give solid performances. Nivetha Pethuraj nails the cool entitlement of someone who hasn’t really known a tough situation, and isn’t sure what to do when she stares at one. Riythvika vacillates convincingly between the forced cheer when on air and the desperation when off it. (You may wonder if marriage is the only thing on the minds of young, urban, educated women. But the film isn’t making a larger point. For these women, it is.) And Mia George is particularly effective as the meek girl who won’t raise her voice and ask her father why he’s making her life hell. (Her sister has to step up and question the old man.) Her flight to freedom, under these circumstances, comes off like a Devayani-starring version of Escape from Alcatraz. The men, on the other hand, don’t register as strongly. Dinesh is back in Attakathi mode – only, far less convincing. The voice quivers like a seismograph reading, but the face remains frozen. He may be one of those actors who needs a good director to deliver a good performance.
Some of the loud comedy (courtesy Bala Saravanan), though amusing, is out of place in such a delicately textured film, but the only real problem comes towards the end, when the various strands come together. There are some ridiculous contrivances, almost as if the director realised he’d made far too “realistic” a drama and wanted to shake the audience up all at one go. Suddenly, the film turns ultra-cinematic, with unearned twists. Still, I walked out appreciating the director’s determination to not opt for easy happy endings. At this point, he’s better at character development than plot development – but that’s no small thing. And individual scenes are directed very well. Note the stretch where Lakshmi gathers some guts and calls a man who said he liked her. She steps out of the house. She dials his number. He doesn’t pick up. She goes back inside. Then he notices the missed call. He calls. Over the sound of the ringing phone, we see her scurrying out again. It’s like a little dance of life.
- Oru Naal Koothu= (just a) day-long circus
- Eppo varuvaaro = see here
- “En mele unakku nambikkai illai.” = You have no faith in me.
- “Un situation mele enakku nambikkai illai.” = I have no faith in your situation.
- maapillai = groom
- Iraivi = see here
- thavil = see here
- Escape from Alcatraz = see here
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