At the opening of Manikandan’s Aandavan Kattalai, these words flashed on screen: This film is meant to create awareness. My heart sank. The film is about debt-ridden Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi), who, with the help of falsified documentation, attempts to get to London on a tourist visa, stay back, and make pots of gold. Or at least, pounds. But the “message” – a warning about shady agents who say they’ll subvert the system for a (big) fee – is delivered with such a light touch, you barely feel it. It’s almost as if Manikandan is slyly subverting the Tamil-cinema system. He probably knows how audiences (and many critics) here size up the heft of a movie solely by the weight of its message. So he’s throwing breadcrumbs and sending those viewers off on a false trail, while he gets down to the business of making a real movie. His first priority isn’t society. It’s cinema.
What we’re left with, then, is the story of an honest man (note that name again!) whose dire situation drives him to dishonesty, and who then realises that to turn honest again, he may have to adopt more dishonest means. There’s more. Gandhi’s London dreams, finally, come true due to his honesty. (He exposes a fraud.) Irony coils upon irony like a reticulated python. Like Manikandan’s first film, Kaaka Muttai, Aandavan Kattalai is a comedy of desperation. Manikandan zooms in on people whose plight should make you cry – he makes you laugh, instead. He doesn’t have an iota of the self-righteousness that inflates so many filmmakers that you want to stick a pin into them. (And let’s face it, some of our filmmakers – we won’t name them – would end up looking like voodoo dolls.) Take the point about violence towards women. We hear about it in the context of a press conference, but the situation is really about establishing Kaarmegakuzhali’s (Ritika Singh) character. Much later, we see a news sheet outside a tea stall – the second headline is about a woman murdered. There’s a lot if you choose to look. If you don’t, you still come away laughing at Yogi Babu’s lines (he’s fantastic). Entertainment that is about something, that says something – it’s the elusive grail Tamil filmmakers keep chasing. Only Manikandan seems to have found it.
It’s probably easier to list the things that don’t work – like that ten-ton title. It’s more suited to a Sivaji Ganesan movie. (Actually, it is the title of a 1964 Sivaji Ganesan melodrama.) Then there’s that contrivance about Gandhi landing up in Kaarmegakuzhali’s house just when her mother is arranging her marriage. It’s not a false note, exactly – it just doesn’t ring as true as, say, the fact that, when asked to think up a woman’s name, Gandhi picks hers, even before he’s met her. (She’s a television journalist. She signs off each segment with her name. It’s very likely he’s heard it, held on to it in a corner of his mind.) And I would have liked a line of closure that addressed Gandhi’s debts, and his sister back home. Then… that’s it. And even these are nitpicks, so forgivable in the face of the larger accomplishment. I’ve never seen a Tamil-film romance so understated. It isn’t even a romance. But we see they like the same things (truth, honesty) and dislike the same things (men who slurp their tea loudly). Compatibility is a far better indicator of happily-ever-after than love at first sight.
Manikandan and his writing team (Arul Chezhiyan, Anucharan) should hold classes for other Tamil filmmakers who want the story-screenplay-dialogue credit but reveal little understanding of these elements. Everything in Aandavan Kattalai is there for a reason. If Gandhi ends up working as the manager of a theatre group, he later finds himself play-acting in front of a judge. (Nasser is fantastic as the director, invoking Stanislavsky and the Method: Inside out… Outside in!) And the conceit of leaving one’s home and struggling in an alien land is a steady undercurrent. We sense it in Nesan (Aravindan, who’s very moving), a Sri Lankan who’s made Chennai his home. We sense it in Gandhi himself, who’s getting, in Chennai, a glimpse of what life might be like in London, trying to find a place to live in, trying to earn a living till something better comes along.
It isn’t just about the protagonist’s journey. We, too, get to journey through the dense ecosystem he’s enmeshed in. Manikandan takes up a premise and examines it like a jeweller would eye at a stone – he brings out every facet. The landlords with their whimsical rules for letting out their flats. The lawyers (George, Vinodhini) who quail in front of the stern judge, when Gandhi’s divorce hearing comes up. (Yes, he isn’t married. And yes, he needs to end his marriage.) All those other couples getting divorced. The marriage counsellors. (The scene is a riot.) The visa officer who tells Gandhi he should see the Taj Mahal first before setting out to see museums in London. (There’s a message right there, just out of sight. The film teems with smaller messages like these: Don’t lie! Crime doesn’t pay!) The consequences of Gandhi’s actions reach even Kaarmegakuzhali’s mother, one of those triumphs of writing that makes a five-minute character as vivid, as memorable as one whose arc spans the entire movie.
What integrates all of this is a vision that envelops everything from the psychedelic opening-credits sequence to Shanmugasundaram’s unobtrusive cinematography (even amidst suffocating crowds, the scenes flow like silk) to K’s contrapuntal musical cues. (A heated argument between Gandhi and his brother-in-law is underscored by… a bouncy waltz.) There’s not a single bad performance. Ritika Singh’s lip-sync may be shaky, but she makes you buy her character even in the iffier moments – her reaction upon receiving Gandhi’s proposal says it all, complex mental calculations reduced to a small furrow in the brow, a smile she fights to control. And Vijay Sethupathi hasn’t been this relaxed in ages. With this actor, it’s often a very thin line between not labouring over a performance and not bothering to give one. Here, thankfully, it’s the former. And you have to acknowledge how he steers his box-office clout towards these smaller films, which might otherwise wilt and die. What he adds isn’t just star power. It’s sunshine.
- aandavan kattalai = God’s decree
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