COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of people across industries and social strata. The film industry is clearly one of the affected ones, with stalled releases, closed theaters and a minimal amount of shooting. Amidst the general dreariness comes an Amazon Prime release with a sunny, hopeful title – Putham Pudhu Kaalai. It is an anthology that showcases the works of five supremely talented filmmakers. The common threads that spin these disparate yarns are positivity, hope and redemption. And all five stories take place during the lockdown.
The segments are helmed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon and Karthik Subburaj. Of the five, two made a terrific impact on me, for entirely different reasons. Two others were, in my mind, qualified successes. And one was a disappointment. Here are my more detailed thoughts on the stories.
ILamai Idho Idho (Directed by Sudha Kongara) – A tale of two middle-aged people contriving an opportunity to spend time with one another, this short features some terrific acting by veterans Jayaram and Urvashi as well as a charming young pair in Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan. While the ambition of the conceit is laudable, the film suffers from trying to accomplish too much in too little time. One of the chief pleasures of films that focus on senior actors is the opportunity to listen to them explain their life’s choices, wants and desires. The premise, which involves two younger actors as well, does not get fleshed out well. There are some sparkling moments of humor such as Jayaram doing an impression of a yoga retreat teacher - Urvashi’s measured expressions during this phone conversation are priceless. But on the whole, the short has a half-baked, rushed feel. The closure is akin to a door shutting abruptly than the smooth, delicate movement that this story demanded.
Avarum Naanum- AvaLum Naanum (Gautham Vasudev Menon) – The awkward sounding title aside, this is my favorite of the five stories. This is a poignant, powerful story of a grandfather (MS Bhaskar) and his granddaughter (Ritu Varma) reuniting in the former’s house and spending quality time with one another. Gautham Menon brings writer Reshma Ghatala’s script to life with a sureness of foot, despite the material not being in his tried and tested zone as a director. The milieu, the posh surroundings and the English lines might sound familiar. But the character of the grandfather, superbly played by MS Bhaskar, is not the type that you typically see in GVM’s films. Here, the director is content to let the camera focus observantly on the main characters. There are none of the frills or indulgent stylizations that have marred some of his previous work. (The staging of the pre-intermission scene of Neethane En Ponvasantham comes to mind.) But the detailing, be it Bhaskar’s black leather watch or the “Lost in Math” book on his desk, is immaculate.
If GVM’s goal was to tell an honest story with utmost conviction, he surpasses his goal handsomely. And he is aided in no small measure by MS Bhaskar. Bhaskar is the master of the monologue. Be it talking about a toilet business in Oh My KadavuLe or his dead son in Mozhi, he can show remarkable restraint and let out just the right amount of emotion at just the right times. His extensive experience as a voice artist is amply evident in his modulations. He delivers an enormously moving talk about his daughter and her excellence in music. The casual way in which he talks about rubbing shoulders with a doyen like Abdul Kalam is in sharp contrast to the way he speaks about his immense pride in his daughter and the incalculable loss that he had suffered. This scene is a character acting tour de force. Full credit to Ritu Varma for playing an apt foil to this powerhouse without losing the identity of her character.
Coffee, Anyone? (Suhasini Mani Ratnam) – This story features an elderly couple where the husband assumes the role of the primary caretaker for his ailing wife. Their three daughters are inherently good, well-meaning human beings who are poles apart from one another in character. In the short running time, Suhasini expertly establishes these characters.
Some of the lines snap and sizzle with truth, wit and wisdom. For instance, Kathadi Ramamurthy’s line about the futility of assessing what is right vs wrong, drips with profundity. Anu Hasan glows in the scene where she tells her mother about her long-awaited pregnancy. Sruthi Haasan nails the video call scene. (The pottu on the laptop is a delightful little touch.) But Suhasini, the actor, plays her role at a pitch that just doesn’t feel right. Her overemphatic style of acting feels like it belongs to another era. For instance, the way she acts when woken up by her sister, feels completely false. Ditto for the reaction to her sister’s pregnancy. But as a writer, she takes very few missteps. The psychological reasoning and motivations of the characters all feel just right. Sruthi Haasan’s resentment owing to being a late child, is especially realistic. Though the ending may be a bit twee, the rays of hope and faith do shine brightly nevertheless.
Reunion (Rajiv Menon) – This was my least favorite of the five stories. This was all the more disappointing because Menon’s previous work, the magnificent Sarvam ThaaLa Maayam, was a film whose impact lingered for days after I had watched the film. A tale of two friends who rekindle their relationship in unexpected circumstances, Reunion had very little that resonated with me.
None of the performances - Andrea Jeremiah, Sikkil Gurucharan and Leela Samson – are especially memorable. While Andrea is able to bring out the rebellious, maverick spirit of her character, she is unable to do justice to the quieter, more vulnerable moments. Beyond the nerdy appearance that fits the Doctor’s character like a glove, Gurucharan does not have the effortless charm or lightness of touch that would have made his interactions with Andrea more spontaneous. And I may be in the minority. But I find Leela Samson as an actor with limited range who plays every role of hers at the same pitch. While there are a couple of tender moments between her and Andrea, I could not resist the thought that a better actress like Radhika would have brought more heft to the admittedly well-written character. And Menon’s writing too felt surprisingly shallow at places. Substance addiction is too loaded a subject to be addressed in a couple of perfunctory vignettes. Even the “I will seek professional help” line felt like a throwaway comment. In short, Reunion would have benefited from a little more realism and a little less forced positivity.
Miracle (Karthik Subburaj) – A wildly entertaining little story of two crooks, this is Karthik Subburaj at his humorous best as he delivers yet another witty tale with his trademark twists and turns. Bobby Simha seems to turn up as a performer only when Karthik is at the helm. And he sinks his teeth into the role, having fun on screen after a long time. Matching him step for step is his partner in crime, Sharath Ravi - here is an actor with impeccable coming timing, to watch out for. The two, along with the director, have oodles of fun – ditto for the audience- in a segment where neither the story nor its cast takes itself too seriously. While this may be a lighthearted, slight effort, it is still a sharp, smart film that does not take the audience’s intelligence for granted.
Overall, Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a fine start for filmmakers who want to invest the time, effort and money in anthologies with multiple perspectives on a subject or a theme. The good news is that as long as they care to look, there are stories abound for filmmakers to pick from. And that thought makes me feel as positive as I did watching this anthology.