It’s easy to care about Salamma (Lakshmy Ramakrishnan), the hardworking protagonist of Ammani. She’s employed at a government hospital, where she swabs floors and tends to an amputee’s stump and cleans up after a patient whose motion is like stone. The words make us flinch; the visuals don’t. The film strikes a fine balance between airbrushing reality and rubbing our face in it. Salamma is going to retire soon. She expects a sum of money. Trouble is, her family expects it too. It’s like those Rajinikanth movies where he does everything for his siblings and children, and they turn ungrateful in a heartbeat. But the characters compensate for the clichés. Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, who also wrote and directed Ammani, makes us care about these leeches too. Like the older son, Saravanan, who’s a drunk. He’s a house painter, but he dreams of becoming a contractor – someone who will, one day, hire painters like him. As he builds these castles in the air, the camera gazes up, at the night sky. Amidst the grimness, a grace note.
Ammani, which runs just 90 minutes, paints these portraits of people who aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just human. When Salamma’s younger son, an auto driver named Siva (Nitin Sathya), humiliates her at the hospital, we don’t just see the beginnings of a conflict. We also see the end of his tether. We feel for her, but we also understand his annoyance with his mother doling out money and jewellery to others when he needs money to buy an auto. Salamma’s sons aren’t freeloaders, but people who’ve tried things out and failed. Ammani plays like a realist’s take on Remo. There we saw the fantasy. Here, we see what it really means to have no money and depend on your mother for food and clothes and shelter. Salamma also has a daughter, who eloped and never came back. Her son, though, arrives. We know there’s a reason. But as he says, it isn’t just the money. It’s also love, the kind that makes us remember long-forgotten relations, especially if they’re coming into money.
At heart, Ammani is a message movie – but it’s very different from the ones we usually get, which point out problems in the society and offer idealistic solutions. Had Ammani been that kind of message movie, it would have targeted Salamma’s sons: Take better care of your parents. Instead, it’s Salamma who’s left with the message: We are responsible for our fates, and it’s up to us whether we want to end up sad or happy. These aspects of the film are represented through the character of Ammani (Subbalakshmi), an old woman who learnt, long ago, that life is sweetest when lived without expectations. Ammani sings songs that reflect the situations on screen – say, Orey oru ooriley, which comments on Salamma and her useless sons. But Ammani also looks into her wrinkled face in a hand mirror and bursts into Munbe vaa. She’s a commentator. She’s also quite a character.
Some of the points are hit too emphatically (like the way Salamma’s family fawn over Ammani when they discover she has money), and the ending – something of a twist – is terribly laboured. There’s too much explanation. But there’s also a lot of detailing. Salamma is surprised that her grandson has materialised out of nowhere, and maybe she’s a little suspicious, but she still loves him enough to make a mutton dish to celebrate his arrival. She isn’t verbally demonstrative. Her actions do the talking. For the most part, the proceedings are bracingly matter-of-fact, not melodramatic. Even dreams of death are alive with humour, with Robo Shankar playing Yama, singing about how life is like a prepaid phone and there’s no recharge once the balance runs out. In this vision, Chitragupta probably sends sms-es about the earthly actions of human beings.
Like all of Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s films (this is her third), Ammani leaves you with a sense of what it could have been with a bigger budget. But the director doesn’t let this stint her ambition. We get a better sense of location shooting than in bigger films. Trains play a major part in the story, and we see them frequently rattling past Salamma’s house in Vyasarpadi – there’s no need for much background music when life provides so much percussion. Where the bigger budget would have helped is in getting bigger actors. This isn’t about the performances, all of which are pretty convincing. This is about name-value, which makes the difference between some people seeking out a film and choosing to stay at home, murmuring “they don’t make interesting movies anymore” when there’s one right under your nose.
- Remo = see here
- Orey oru ooriley = see here
- Munbe vaa = see here
- Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s films = Aarohanam; and Nerungi Vaa Muthamidaathe
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