The title of Manikandan’s new film – Kutrame Thandanai (Crime is Punishment) – may appear to knock on Dostoevsky’s door, but the film owes more to Alfred Hitchcock and Rear Window. At least for a while. The opening scenes are set in a crowded tenement complex, and we observe the goings on from the vantage of Ravi’s (Vidharth) flat, just as we followed James Stewart’s point of view. As in the older film, a neighbour ends up murdered. And the protagonist is limited by a condition. In Stewart’s case, it was a foot-fracture. Ravi suffers from tunnel vision. He can only see what’s directly ahead, which appears as a small circle in a sea of black. It’s like a freeze-frame of an iris shot.
But unlike the Stewart character, Ravi barely manages a living. He’s a collection agent who goes after overdue credit-card payments. But the bigger difference is that Rear Window concerned itself with the murder and apprehending the perpetrator, while Kutrame Thandanai is after something more… existential. No, nothing as crass as Ravi being haunted by his actions (though Nasser does play something of a conscience-keeper, dropping aphorisms like “Edhu thevayo adhaan dharmam”), but there’s the sense of an inner rumbling, a practical man-of-today’s grappling with the impulse to do the right thing – not in the cosmic sense, but simply for himself. Ravi needs money for an eye surgery. He’s seen people coming and going into the victim’s house. (Pause for a second to savour the irony: a near-blind man is the sole eyewitness.) And he seizes the opportunity for extortion. It’s tunnel vision of another kind. Ravi has eyes only for his own problems.
The set up is terrific. Manikandan is a careful, thoughtful filmmaker who never oversells a moment. The scene where Ravi reveals that he’s had this condition from childhood, that he thought this is how everyone sees, is so ripe for emotional manipulation – but it remains just information, something we need to know about the character. (Vidharth is superb; he brings to life a beaten man who doesn’t really complain, but can’t help wishing fate had been kinder.) The film charts Ravi’s journey, and Manikandan makes us see everything through the tunnel of Ravi’s vision. At first I wondered why we learn so little about the Pooja Devariya character. She’s Ravi’s colleague. She has a brother who hits her up for booze money. And then? But that’s all Ravi sees. What Ravi doesn’t know, we don’t know either. (Which is why a voiceover-like confession by the Rahman character, the victim’s boss, sounds odd. It comes off like a hasty device to tide the audience over a plot point.)
Devariya is excellent, as are Marimuthu (as a cop, again!) and Guru Somasundaram, who nails the smarminess of a lawyer’s assistant. (Just listening to him sheepishly tell Ravi who he is made me laugh.) Aishwarya Rajesh plays the victim, an ethereal presence with refreshingly earthbound values. She’s unapologetic about her choices – just like Ravi. Their “crimes” result in punishments, but without the moralistic finger-wagging we’ve come to expect from Tamil cinema. Manikandan’s touch is feather-light. He’s not saying, “Look, this is what happens if you do these things.” He’s just saying, with a shrug of the shoulders, “Shit happens sometimes.”
And yet. I can’t put my finger on it, but the magic of Kaaka Muttai is missing. It’s probably unfair to compare the films, as they’re so different and a shades-of-grey protagonist is certainly tougher to warm up to than two adorably twinkly-eyed children – but things don’t come together as organically here. After a point, the writing is strained. The last few minutes are crammed with needless twists. Okay, let me rephrase that. These “sensational” revelations – one about the victim, one about Ravi’s condition – belong in a different movie.
But there’s at least one similarity between the films – their music, too, belongs in a different movie. It’s wonderful to have Ilayaraja writing for the guitar again, and these understated passages beautifully capture the ebb and flow of Ravi’s inner world. But elsewhere, the music is too dramatic. The story is steeped in matter-of-fact philosophy. The score keeps saying, “This is a nail-biting murder mystery.” Manikandan’s sensibility is starker than the scores for Kutrame Thandanai and Kaaka Muttai suggest. The music sentimentalises these films – perhaps intentionally, to make them more “audience-friendly.” But I can’t shake off the feeling that the truest way to experience this director’s vision is to watch his films on mute.
- kutrame thandanai = crime is punishment
- Kaaka Muttai = see here
- Rear Window = see here
- “Edhu thevayo adhaan dharmam” = What we need, that’s dharma.
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