Despite what the title may have you believe, Amma Kanakku is not about the monthly bills at a certain Poes Garden residence. This amma is named Shanti (Amala Paul), and she has no assets, disproportionate or otherwise. She juggles many jobs. She works at a fish market. She washes vessels at a roadside eatery. But she’s defined, primarily, as the domestic help in Dr. Nandini’s (Revathy) house. In other words, a velaikkari. But the character doesn’t carry the connotations this word usually brings along, which were codified on screen by the 1949 film version of Anna’s play named… Velaikkari. The difference between the character in that film – a creature treated like dirt, a representation of an abject social class – and Shanti here is the difference between the emotions evoked by the words “velaikkari” and “domestic help.” We never see Shanti faced with a mountain of dirty dishes or cleaning the commode. We see her as a manicurist, applying nail polish. She slices vegetables. (Her employer likes to make pickles.) She packs suitcases for Dr. Nandini’s trips. (Gavemic U Ary’s exquisitely toned cinematography does its bit to soften the squalor.)
And this becomes a problem. The crux of Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s film – whose Hindi version, Nil Battey Sannata, was released earlier this year – is that Shanti does not want her daughter Abi (Yuvasri) to become a velaikkari like her, and will do anything to prevent this… catastrophe. But the child – a not-very-bright, tenth-standard student – is equanimous about her destiny. She reasons that a doctor’s kid will become a doctor, an engineer’s kid will turn out an engineer – hence her future as a domestic help. Though not a velaikkari. She likes nice things, and she sees herself in an upscale house, probably tending to Ajith’s or Vijay’s kids or dusting their antiques (she’s mad about movies) and taking home a decent-enough salary. The film never answers the question: So if Abi dreams of becoming this kind of domestic help, then why shouldn’t she? After all, if her mother’s stint at Dr. Nandini’s house is anything to go by, it’s not a bad life at all. Why should everyone aim to become a collector, which is Shanti’s dream for Abi?
Of course Abi should strive to become a collector if she wants to. But if she doesn’t, it falls upon Shanti (and the film) to convince Abi that that’s a much better future. The problem with Amma Kanakku is twofold. One, it looks down on certain kinds of honest labour. Becoming a driver is a “kevalamaana kanavu.” Getting a government job that pays Rs. 8000 per month? That’s no good either. And we know what Shanti thinks of becoming a domestic help. Two, the film employs emotional blackmail to get Abi on Shanti’s side. Abi changes her mind not because she thinks (or has been convinced) that this is the right thing to do, but because her poor mother, who works so hard, thinks this is the right thing, and so she must be right. Do many children make decisions simply because their parents tell them to do something? Certainly. But when a film is trying to make a major point, it needs to explore all sides. On that count, Amma Kanakku doesn’t add up.
What we have, finally, is a feel-good film, a film that makes its middle-class target audience feel good about Abi’s escape from her mother’s fate. Tiwari doesn’t push the story into icky corners. Shanti’s employers are unfailingly nice, and even when one of them fires her, he doesn’t raise his voice. When she loses all her savings, you don’t feel her loss. (By then the film’s feel-goodism is so entrenched, you know the crisis will pass quickly.) The film’s cutesy conceit is that Shanti joins Abi’s class to make the daughter study harder. I doubt there have been kids this tolerant of a grown-up in their class. A few giggles on seeing her, a small jab about her height – and that’s it. They’re all soon best buddies. If only life were this easy. Amma Kanakku doesn’t feel as fluid as Nil Battey Sannata. Ilayaraja’s songs just don’t work. The dialogues aren’t as flavourful, and sometimes sound downright odd. (“Maths pengalukku pazhaya edhiri.”) It’s also interesting to see the changes made keeping the “Tamil audience” in mind. The Hindi version did not dwell on Shanti’s husband, but here we learn he died in an accident when she was pregnant. A neighbour advised her to abort the baby, but she refused. How can Abi not come around to Shanti’s way of thinking after learning this?
If there’s some frustration with the facileness at its core, it’s because Amma Kanakku isn’t a stupid, lazily made, one-note message movie (though there’s a heavy dose of preaching at the end). There’s a lot of atmosphere, flavour, nuance, gentle humour – especially from Samuthirakani, in a change-of-pace role as the school’s headmaster, whose gestures border on mime. It’s an uncharacteristically zany performance, and you sense a man so bored with his job, with the bratty kids, with the platitudes he has to spout, that he decided to liven things up by putting on a show. The real message of Amma Kanakku may be that we need more women filmmakers. They craft female characters in ways that many male filmmakers simply don’t. (Or maybe it’s just that male filmmakers choose to tell very different stories.) Shanti doesn’t seem to be bothered that she’s not in a relationship. Even the (single) collector she runs into isn’t roped into the movie for a love angle. One part of me said that this is because the local audience may not care to see a married actress in a romance, but it’s also because it’s her story, her daughter’s story. There’s really no place in it for a man.
- Amma Kanakku= A mother’s calculations
- Velaikkari = see here
- Nil Battey Sannata = see here
- kevalamaana kanavu = despicable dream
- Maths pengalukku pazhaya edhiri. = Maths has always been the enemy of women.
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