Writer-Director Halitha Shameem packs a lot into a film. I don't mean lengthy dialogues or busy frames. I am referring to the density of thought and intricate detail that she includes in a way that, in her words, is "connection seeking, not attention seeking." The connection is between not just the lead characters but also between us and the film itself. Her 30-min segment is titled "Loners" and it is a part of "Putham Puthu Kaalai Vidiyaadha", the latest Tamil anthology on Amazon. Her love for detailing ensures that nothing comes across as cliched or uninteresting. The way she stages a wedding that is relayed on Zoom, for instance. An instrumental version of "Aanandham..." plays unobtrusively in the background. Nothing significant but the little touches contribute immensely to the verisimilitude that she strives for. In an online group discussion where supposedly, the point is that the lead pair sees each other again, an elderly lady makes a lovely point about "slowing down", before she signs off. But such details are the peripherals. The crux is a poignant, thought-provoking account of a boy and a girl bonding in a deep, giving manner. That strong crux is akin to the chocolate core of a Cornetto, to use a "Sillu Karupatti" reference, except that the entire contents are a delight to savor, not just the chocolate.
Halitha Shameem's use of English is liberal but it never comes across as artificial or unnecessary. I truly believe that terms such as "empathy", "vulnerability", "toxic positivity" and phrases such as, "I feel you" might have come across as stilted if translated into Tamil. The language spoken has to fit the milieu and as was the case with "Sillu Karupatti", the mix of Tamil and English feels completely organic. Halitha weaves together free-flowing conversations that gradually solidify the bond between the lead characters.
And speaking of the leads, Lijomol Jose and Arjun Das are stupendous. Having watched Lijomol in "Sivappu Manjal Patchai", "Jai Bhim" (her scene in the commissioner office alone, is worth an acting award) and now "Loners", it is not difficult to predict that she will go places. (Yes, I know I sound like Professor Gnanaprakasm in "Mozhi!") Halitha not only shapes her character but also shapes her performance with a sure hand. There are two moments in the store sequence that are an exquisite combination of thoughtful writing and splendid acting. The first is the moment where the characters take off their face masks. Even though they just met in front of the store, seeing each other after removing their masks feels like a second introductory moment. And the camera lingers on Lijomol's and Arjun's faces, capturing their bashfulness beautifully. (Without saying anything, the moment makes a statement about how in-person interactions have evolved in the COVID world). The second is the way Lijomol steals a glance at Arjun when he is looking down. It is a small yet wonderful bit of acting and staging. Halitha is fast proving to be an ace in staging these minute moments, trusting us viewers to not miss the nuances. And Arjun is superbly controlled in the moment where he breaks down, expressing a mix of guilt and regret about his friend. The importance of catharsis is also brought out in a deeply affecting manner. Arjun's voice has already become the stuff of legend. But he is no lazy actor to rest on his innate strength. Instead, he channels it in service of a well-fleshed out character where he uses his voice to bring out the anguish of the character very effectively. I hope that the work of these actors opens the doors for many such well-written roles, for they are fully capable of delivering on the trust placed in them.
That Halitha, the writer, is a deep thinker is obvious in the moments such as when Arjun and Lijomol speak about the fake positivity that co-exists uneasily with the tragedy that the pandemic has unleashed on humanity. But it is a testament to the confidence of the writer that she keeps slipping in important ideas without being overt about them. A case in point is the way Arjun asks Lijomol if he could join her for her grocery run in person. He asks first. She says, yes. He still takes the effort of asking if she is sure about it. That little interaction says what we, as a society, need to hear about 'consent' without making a big deal about it. Even when he proposes an idea for her line of work, he does it with such humility (modestly stating that he is just customizing the concept of open-air theaters) and such dignity, even going as far as to request her to excuse him for any presumptuousness. That little bit speaks volumes of respect and courtesy that we owe to fellow human beings, without calling undue attention unto itself.
It is a pleasure to be able to witness the emerging filmography of a filmmaker like Halitha Shameem right from the start of her promising career. Her "Aelay" did not work for me as well as "Sillu Karupatti" and "Poovarasam Peepee" did. With "Loners", she has given viewers a deeply fulfilling experience to savor and reflect on, without spoon feeding us. It is with much anticipation that I look forward to her "Minmini" and other future works because the strains of positivity in her films are addictive in a healthy way, not "toxic"!