Samuthirakani’s new film, Appa, contains a scene in which a father (named Dayalan, and played by Samuthirakani) facilitates for his son a cup-of-coffee kind of meeting with a girl from school. It’s not exactly a date, though. The boy, a teenager, is confused by his feelings towards this girl, perhaps towards all girls. He says his heart starts hammering, he goes tongue-tied. Dayalan understands that part of this is the unfamiliar feeling of attraction to the opposite sex, but another part is simply unfamiliarity with the opposite sex. So he asks his son to bring the girl home. He serves coffee. He makes them talk. They lose their inhibitions, become friends. Later, Dayalan tells his son that it’s important to be at ease with the opposite sex, not fear them, not fetishise them – otherwise, you may grow up to be the kind of man who, when faced with a woman, whips out a bottle of acid or a knife. In light of what just happened at the Nungambakkam train station, a chill ran down my spine.
All of which is to say that I agree with the things Samuthirakani wants to say in his films. I even admire them. These things need to be said. But when is he going to make the leap from pamphleteer to filmmaker? Appa is like his earlier directorial outings – Naadogigal, Nimirndhu Nil – where the screenplay is just one message after another, each scene a problem-solving exercise that results in a nugget of wisdom. “[Namma paiyana] indha samoogathai nesikkaravanaa uyarthanum.” “Appa enbadhu oru arpudhamana uravu.” The visuals are the equivalent of diagrams on a PowerPoint presentation. Dayalan, who encourages his son to be his own person even if it means dropping out of a draconian school, calls the boy a naatukozhi. The boy asks, “What about the others?” And Dayalan points to a truck conveniently passing by, stacked with coops of hapless chicken. Ba-dum-dish. Powerful point made.
Appa is dedicated to Samuthirakani’s “thirai ulaga appa” K Balachander – the music is by “isaiyin appa,” Ilayaraja – and he seems to have imbibed only the preachy aspects of the great director, regrettably evident in his latter-day films. Among the kids Dayalan mentors is a Muslim (she wants to study agriculture and help farmers), a Dalit (she brings about an inter-caste relationship), a boy whose growth is stunted (he follows his dreams and proves that it’s not the size of the person that matters but the size of his spirit). But Balachander was also interested in the complexities of relationships. He would have never written Dayalan’s wife as a one-note shrew who needs to be punished simply because she wants their son to be like the other kids. She wants the child to go to playschool. Dayalan says that’s the refuge of lazy parents who don’t want to spend time with their kids. She screams and slices her hand with a knife. Dayalan caves in. The next time they have an argument, she leaves him and goes back to her father’s house.
This is the tone of the film – scene after hysterical scene, with abrupt transitions. What happens to the inter-caste couple? Is Dayalan’s wife back with him simply because she wasn’t treated well in her father’s house? Given the fundamental differences between them, do they have a shot at happiness? Take the scene where Dayalan’s son goes missing. After the boy is found, wouldn’t Dayalan ask where the boy was, or what happened? The film follows many threads and none are satisfactorily explored. Dayalan’s son is first a swimmer. Then he says he wants to study history. We never get into the boy’s head, so we don’t see these as decisions. They’re just data. A cartoonish Thambi Ramaiah plays the anti-Dayalan, a father who wants to control every aspect of his son’s life. The boy ends up in a residential school where students are punished by being stripped and thrashed. A suspension notice would be too mild for this movie.
Samuthirakani has grown into a terrific actor, and he works consistently with good filmmakers – and you wonder if it isn’t time for him to look around between shots and pick up some tricks if he’s going to keep making movies. I was talking about his lack of subtlety to someone, and I was told that this is what works with the mainstream audience. Hence the scene where Dayalan stands up to his son’s teachers. When they accuse him of being a troublemaker, he says he is bringing this issue up because his son needs to know that he’s there for him. The next question directed at him: “Neenga communist-a? Naxalite-a?” I rolled my eyes, but the people around me clapped every time a moral instruction erupted from Dayalan’s lips. Clearly, there’s still an audience that, after a century of cinema, is only interested in what is being said, not how – only content, not form. That may be this film’s biggest message.
- Appa = Father
- Naadogigal = see here; and here
- Nimirndhu Nil = see here
- “[Namma paiyana] indha samoogathai nesikkaravanaa uyarthanum.” = We should raise our son as someone who loves this society.
- “Appa enbadhu oru arpudhamana uravu.” = Fatherhood is a precious relationship.
- naatukozhi = country chicken
- “thirai ulaga appa” = my father in films
- “isaiyin appa” = the father of music
- “Neenga communist-a? Naxalite-a?”= Are you a communist? A Naxalite?
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