Indira is a mother of three kids, one of whom is an adopted child. She agrees to accompany her husband Thiruselvan to Sri Lanka in search of the adopted daughter’s biological mother. A couple of days after they land, the three of them go on a bus journey to a village as part of this quest. As they board the bus, Amudha, the daughter, decides to take a nap. Thiru asks Indira, “Are you thinking of our kids back home?” Indira, resting her chin on Thiru’s shoulder, responds, “For the sake of one child, we have left two back home. I hope they are doing well. I wonder how my father is taking care of them single handedly.” Her response is honest but in an equally spontaneous moment, she quickly adds, “Amudha is still asleep, right?” Simran, the mother, plays this little scene so exceptionally well that you could just watch this scene without any audio, look at her expressions, and understand what she is communicating to her husband.
I recently revisited Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002) and was struck by how I could not think of a single performance by an actress in Tamil in the past 15 years that I regard as better than this. Aishwarya Rajesh in Kaaka Muttai, Priya Mani in Paruthi Veeran and Anjali in Kattradhu Thamizh (in that order) come close. And one could even argue that these three actresses dubbed in their own voice for these movies whereas Deepa Venkat was the voice artist for Simran in Kannathil… But there are several moments of sublime internalization by Simran in this difficult role that makes her performance truly stand out. More than the voice - Deepa Venkat does a fine job here, no doubt - it is her face and body language that speak volumes. And for that, her performance in this movie deserves to be regarded as a crown jewel in any analysis of modern Tamil cinema.
The oonjal scene where she tries to answer Amudha’s (Keerthana, who won a richly deserved National award) questions about her biological mother and how and why she was adopted is a scene where the writing, acting, cinematography and production design all come together in the most cohesive, undemonstrative way. In a recent interview, when asked if viewers might miss paying attention to all the technical aspects that bring a scene alive, Mani Ratnam thoughtfully remarked, “It is okay if they don’t notice it; as long as they sense it, that’s enough.” I have watched Kannathil… multiple times in the past decade and I suppose I had always “sensed” how exquisite this scene was. But it was only during this recent viewing that I paid attention to Simran’s minute, purposeful changes in body language that so perfectly suited the lines that she was delivering in this scene. When Amudha asks a rather painful question (“Was I in a trash can when I was retrieved?”) she looks away uncertainly. When the kid says, “Will you abandon me?” she hugs her tightly. And when the kid wants further reassurance, she looks her in the eye and comforts her. The scene has a deeply poignant end when Amudha asks, “Why did you tell me now? You could have told me later.” Indira knows that it is a question better left unanswered and just continues to hold on to her daughter in a comforting posture. And Ratnam, ever the master of song placement, makes this scene lead to the soothing melody, “Oru Dheivam Thandha Poove…”
Another sequence that merits a closer look is the railway station one. Amudha, feeling confused and uncertain about her future, has run away from the house. But thanks to a good samaritan, the parents receive a call that the kid is at the railway station. While being informed of the daughter’s whereabouts on the phone, Indira pleads to the caller, “Please be with her till we come.” En route to the station, Thiru tries to dismiss her feelings and asks her to stop crying. Despite her vulnerabilities, she is an inherently steely person. So she asks him to mind his own business. And at the station, once she spots the kid, she looks intently, with pain, disappointment and even a bit of anger. After they return home, as Amudha tries to apologize for her act, Indira, overcoming her own anger, hugs and kisses her in a loving manner. And in a truly lifelike moment, she adds that she has to finish her chores! Emotional upheavals or not, life goes on. Simran is incandescent in this sequence, displaying myriad changes in tone in a seamless, artless, affecting manner.
It’s been a few days since I finished watching the movie. And I reckon that apart from the stupendous level of acting by Simran, it is the way in which Mani Ratnam shaped the character that has led to my feeling compelled to dwell on her performance. Simran appears in the movie with minimal make-up, simple but elegant clothing, hair not nearly as perfectly coiffed, as was the case in her other movies. But her radiance in this movie comes from the intrinsic elements that she brings to the screen as well as these externals that result from Ratnam’s sure-footed shaping of her character and performance. And the result of this truly artistic collaboration is a deeply fulfilling experience.