Readers Write In #208: The Old Man and the Boy

Posted on June 18, 2020

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(by Ananya Natarajan)

(Spoilers ahead)

Looking at KD Engira Karuppudurai and Nandalala as the Tamil version of an opposites-attract-buddy-road movie. Of course, they are much more than that.

A trope that is seen in a large number of ‘buddy’ films is to contrive the meeting of two contrasting characters who are thereafter nudged to work together by circumstances. This setup provides an arena for a relationship development arc – which typically starts with friction between the characters. An eventual bonding occurs over resolving an external conflict together. The opposing characteristics in the personalities might come to head again, generally in the climax. A resolution of sorts is attained in time for the ending.

The contrast between the characters have come in many forms – differing personalities, biracial pairings that are commonplace in Hollywood, comedic duos such as Abbot-Costello, Laurel-Hardy and Fry-Laurie, and rarely, a non-romantic male-female pairing like the last sequence in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

In the two Tamil films mentioned, the main contrast is the difference in the ages of two protagonists. In KD, Karuppudurai is an old man of 80 while his eventual ‘buddy’ is the sharp tongued Kutty, who is a tenth of his age. The mentally challenged 27-year-old Bhaskar Mani who escapes an asylum is befriended by the schoolboy Akhilesh in Nandalala. The other contrasts in these pairings come off as stark ironies. KD runs away from his children who plan to euthanize him. Kutty has never been part of a family. Both Bhaskar and Akhilesh want to meet their mothers, but for very different reasons – Bhaskar wants to kill her while the latter merely wants a kiss from her. Bhaskar’s aversion is clearly showcased in his intro sequence – a man moans out ‘Amma’ while in pain. Bhaskar flies in a fit of rage and hammers at the door to shut up the man. At some point, he looks at a small lane and turns away in disgust. Later, when he reaches his hometown Thaaivaasal, we realise the reason – the village is composed of similar lanes. Despite the betrayal he had from his mother’s hands, he innately understands the importance of a mother for a child.

On the other hand, Akhilesh is the child who has to grow up too soon. He is the de facto head of his household, consisting of his grandmother and a maid. He pays on behalf of Bhasker Mani for the road trip. Both he and Bhasker are an unexpected mix of an adult and a child. Bhasker tends to get physical in confrontations. Akhilesh hitches most of their rides. Bhasker considers only coins as money. Akhilesh stares helplessly at the man who snatches his cash away.

Mysskin’s portrayal of Bhasker simultaneously differs from and echoes Wolf from Onaayum Aatukuttiyum. Wolf’s suave façade strongly contrasts with Bhasker’s blunt nature – till he breaks down in a monologue towards the climax. (The monologue of Nandalala is delivered by a prostitute who narrates her fall into the abyss). His haunting past unmasks his collected persona and drives him to a different type of insanity. The ending scene of OA has a similar quality – Chandru carrying the girl echoes and contrasts with Bhasker carrying his mother away from the chains that tie her. [On a side note: The wide-angle shots that Mysskin loves are ubiquitous here. There’s a fun 10-second cameo by Nasser who unwittingly saves the protagonists by dozing off while driving a truck.]

While the characterisations of the protagonists in KD and Nandalala are similar, the films have vastly different moods. Nandalala is deeply philosophical with tragicomic undertones. KD is almost entirely, a comedy film.

In this case, the adult (cynic) and the child (happy) in the equation are distinct. Kutty is the ‘grown-up’ and KD is the kid. Take this incident – KD eats mutton biriyani in an eatery with relish every day, oblivious to the owner who is using him for marketing purposes. It is Kutty who demands a share in profits of the eatery. Kutty has the ego of an adult too – he refuses to step foot in the temple when he is slighted by the trustee.

The characters act ‘age appropriately’ in two cases – when they visit a waterfall and when Kutty gets a chance at education. In the first instance, the place reminds KD of the thalaikoothal that almost happened to him and insists on leaving while Kutty refuses adamantly. In the second case, KD gives an old man’s advice on the importance of education. Kutty reluctantly gives in and agrees to study in the end.

The device of a road movie offers scope for introducing a varied array of characters and events incidentally. Characters can be fleshed out with multiple instances of external conflict without the latter seeming contrived. Bhasker Mani repeatedly tries to defend those who are powerless – he has some innate sense of good. In a marvelous stretch, Akhilesh tries to fend off a police officer by incessantly spouting out a nonsensical rant in English. KD achieves his lifelong dream of emulating MGR. Kutty can be smooth tongued if he wants to – he gets a bottle of wine for KD after convincing another man to give it away.

On watching the two films, this nagged me – what if it were Valli and her granddaughter that had went on this road trip? Is it even plausible for them to do so? With the imminent dangers of the world at night, that story might be realistic in a fantasy world alone.