ANDHAGHAARAM: It is very rare to come across a film in India which doesn’t have a single superfluous moment or irrelevant frame in its length and breadth. In spite of almost 3 hours’ playing-time Andhaghaaram manages that near-impossible feat. It is an amazing story told by a master storyteller with the skills and craft that only the most accomplished director can boast of. It comes as a complete surprise to know this is V Vignarajan’s first film. After watching the film twice-over I want to probe this director’s mind. How did he think of crafting this astounding drama where the horror and dread are welded into the sounds and sights of everyday life, where three men, coincidentally (?) from three different generations, come together in a collective clasp of supernaturalism in ways that no one could ever predict?
This is the kind of rare cinema where one has no idea about the next move, unless one has seen it already. Even during a second viewing, I was taken aback by some of Vignarajan’s visual imagery ,a drop of blood, a toothbrush in a cup, a green empty bottle chasing a blind man, the way the director uses a dark room with a bright red landline phone or a rickety movie theatre to generate a sepulchral aura… all these constitute a marvel of cinematic creation.
The spoken language and the tone in which the characters speak to one another that goes from a whispered warning to a muffled scream, are further evidence of the director's tremendous visual and emotional adroitness. As the stressful situations open up, there is much stress on visual detailing (God, after all, lies in the details and never mind if Tolstoy’s novel The Devil plays a pivotal part in this the drama of dread), so much so that I wondered which came first in the writer-director’s head: the visual imagery or the devastating plot. There is a supremely smooth simultaneity with which the narrative moves across the three enormously troubled protagonists’ lives without ruffling up the feathers of this rare bird called Andhaghaaram.
There is a blind young desperately poor librarian Selvam (Vinoth Kishan) with the face of Sufi saint who communicates with the dead. Then there is Vinod (Arjun Das) who’s losing his mind as the landline phone in his one-room apartment issues him chilling threats in a voice straight out of hell. Finally there is a traumatized psychiatrist played by Kumar Natarajan who has his own plans for all the mentally distraught heroes of the world.
The narrative glides across these godforsaken lives splashing in puddles of anxiety negotiating stumbling blocks with an unassuming audacity. The film has a stunning look and a beating heart that never stops pumping up the adrenaline. For me it all came a little undone at the end. I must confess I enjoyed the film more during its journey into the heart of darkness rather than its denouement. In trying to solve too many puzzles, in trying to tie up all the loose ends, much of the mystique and the sense of dread are lost.Nonetheless what I came away with is one of the most remarkable suspense thrillers in Indian cinema with a sound design (Alagiakoothan) and cinematography (AM Edwin Sakay) that create a poetry of a tormented bird in flight fluttering its wings against the windowpane of life.
I confess I was deeply impressed, and not the least of it is the actors whom I had never seen before. All I saw was not actors aiming to give award-winning performances, but a bunch of really troubled people trying to behave normally in a world where nothing makes sense if you sit down to think about it. Meditative, melancholic, mysterious and moving Andhaghaaram is one of the most remarkable cinematic achievements in recent times.
PAAVA KADHAIGAL: Honour, pride, shame and brutal crime play a big hand in this grand though flawed omnibus of four stories, each devoted to bringing out the pungent flavours of the fierce rules of patriarchy that govern lives of women .
In Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vaanmagal, a grief stricken mother contemplates the thought of killing her 12-year old daughter after the child is raped by ruffians known to the family (this is an important point: sexual violation is often perpetrated in known territory). Menon who also plays the rapevictim’s father effectively, here toys with the middleclass’ obsession with respectability without irony or prejudice. Menon’s heartbroken confession to his wife that he can’t bear to look at his child without feeling naked, is a takeaway moment from this flawed but powerful story. But the treatment of the story ,so stark and affecting to begin with, lapses into excessive melodrama and the sequence of the rape survivor’s brother castrating the rapist is hideously out of place. Simran as the survivor's mother breathes fire and passion into her part, though her makeup and appearance could have been less immaculate.
More charming, heartwarming and affectionately designed is Sudha Kongora’s Thangam, a fable-like melodrama replete with sex, crime revenge and redemptiom, with a very convincing Kalidas Jayaram as an effeminate villager who takes everyone’s heckling in his stride and blows up his savings for a gender-reversal surgery on seeing his sister elope with the man HE loves played handsomely by Shantanu Bhagyaraj.
A heavy-handed melodrama in spirit, Ms Kongora transmutes the first -half of her 35-minute film into a smark puckish flirtatious fable with Jayaram and Bhagyaraj killing it. Then the curse of the second-half sets in. Much wailing and shrieking transpires before we get to the “moral” of the story. I am not sure what it is. But the sincerity of the central performances and the director’s faith in love as a panacea help to keep you invested in the characters and their tumultuous lives.
Love Panna Uttranum directed by Vignesh Shivan is the weakest of the four stories. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess with the caste system and honour killing being mixed with a lip-smacking black comedy which sits as uneasily on the theme as potato chips at a Sunday mass. Kalki Koechlin and Anjali are lesbian lovers (or so we are made to believe) who visit the latter’s radically conservative feudal father in a village. Anjali has a twin sister who has just been bumped off in the bathroom by her Baabuji and his favourite sidekick. The entire black comedy goes into a wild spin with characters running around trying to make honour killing look goofy, and never quite gets a grip on itself. Jokes on ‘Lesbian’ being called the ‘ESPN channel’ could only induce giggles if you are a schoolboy on whatsapp.
The anthology saves the best for the last. Oor Iravu directed by Vetrimaaran is a powerful, muscular soul-searing and gut-wrenching study of honour killing. The unfailingly exceptional Prakash Raj plays a wounded father who lures his happily married pregnant estranged daughter (Sai Pallavi) back to her parental home, poisons her and watches her die. The harrowing story unfolds in a traditional middle class house with the rooms around a darkly-lit courtyard. The use of the traditional homespace to portray this unspeakable crime is masterly moving and horrifying. Shot in a scorching night light, the camera trails the agonizing drama in a dance of tragic travesty. This segment of the four-story anthology (each story is accessible separately) would have qualified as a masterpiece were it not for the closing scenes which replace live images with static sketches. A Covid compromise?
For all its flaws, Paava Kadhaigal is an unforgettable journey into lives where social norms govern human emotions to a lethal extent. It is not always a pleasant experience .But eventually tremendously rewarding.
Image source: IMDb, Youtube/NetflixIndia