Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Two unsinkable ships: Thoughts on Thiruchitrambalam, Autograph and Thotta Chinungi

It is quite rare that I let my views on a topic cloud my opinion of a movie.  But it happened recently with Thiruchitrambalam.  I chose to not review it because I felt that I could not trust myself to look past my opinions of friendship, to review the film based on its own merits and demerits.  Thanks to the influence of serious critics like Baradwaj Rangan, I sincerely try to review a film based on how well the writer-director brings to the screen the story that she or he chooses to tell.  In that respect, Thiruchitrambalam probably deserves a much better review than the one that I would have written.  Why so?  Because I hated the final act of the film. (Spoilers ahead) Having invested in the friendship of Nithya Menen and Dhanush, to be told that she had harbored feelings of love all along, felt like a mighty letdown.  Though the stellar cast and their wonderful performances kept me engaged, I felt cheated.  Was it entirely the fault of the filmmaker? 

Let me start by saying that there have been films like Piriyadha Varam Vendum and Oh My Kadavule that have explored the space of a friendship metamorphosing into love and the tricky aspects of two close friends marrying one another.  The seemingly lightweight Kadhal Desam is mostly remembered for its songs.  “Muzhugathe ship-pe friendship than” is a line that is remembered in the context of the irresistible “Mustafa…” song.  But the film, as frivolous as it was, attempted to do justice to friendship as much as it was about love.  It featured a thought-provoking sequence where SPB assures Tabu that a good friend could make for a good spouse.  That she might want to marry her friend instead of hoping that her life partner will be a good pal to her.  Agree or disagree with what he said, it at least gave friendship the respect it deserved.  It felt like a logical conversation between a friendly Dad and a loving daughter.  In none of these movies did I feel the kind of negative emotions like I did with the concluding portions of Thiruchitrambalam. 

As I reflected on my feelings after watching the film, I realized that my unfavorable response really stemmed from the fact that this was not the kind of man-woman friendship that I enjoy watching on screen.  I realized that beyond the “vaa da” and “po di” kind of ‘casual’ remarks between friends, films that explored the depth of a friendship across gender are what truly appealed to me.  My bias was and is towards films where friends remained friends for the duration of a film.  In that respect, two films that have stayed with me for a long time are Autograph and Thotta Chinungi.  Sneha and Cheran in the former and Revathi and Karthik in the latter share the kind of bond that appeals to me not only as a moviegoer but also as a person.  While Autograph is a little more in-your-face in its depiction, the subtlety and sensitivity in Thotta Chinungi is an absolute delight. 

In Thotta Chinungi, Revathi and Karthik are friends from a young age.  A young Karthik loses his mom early in life.  Revathi and her brother are his only family.  Revathi marries Raghuvaran.  All is well until Raghuvaran starts developing feelings of possessiveness, insecurity and suspicion.  Writer-director KS Adhiyaman does a fabulous job of showcasing their relationship in a lifelike manner.  He balances the rhythms of daily life with just the right emotional beats.  There are sweet lifelike touches like Revathi addressing Karthik, “Sir” and Karthik casually sitting on her kitchen counter and chatting with her and Raghuvaran.  At the same time, when asked to describe his feelings for her, in a rather lovely scene, Karthik describes her as the maternal figure in his life.  When a situation involving Revathi’s brother escalates out of hand, Karthik takes him in.  But he does so in the most undemonstrative, non-judgmental manner.  In a stupendous bit of screenwriting, Adhiyaman makes Karthik’s love interest (played by Rohini) talk to Raghuvaran about Karthik and Revathi’s bond.  To have Karthik talk to Raghuvaran would have just not been as effective. 

What makes Thotta Chinungi resonate with me is not just the respect and dignity it affords to the friendship.  It is also how the relationship is tested severely.  And how the characters come out of it shining brightly.  In the aforementioned kitchen counter scene, Karthik nonchalantly mentions that simple joys like eating Revathi’s food and playing with her kid are all that he wants in life.  Later, in the climax, when Karthik almost walks away from the relationship to save Revathi and Raghuvaran’s marriage, Raghuvaran steps in and mentions the same line uttered by Karthik.  That is all that he says to reassure him that both his friendship and their marriage will be intact.  And the film ends with a closeup of Revathi smiling.  Simple yet striking.  Pithy yet profound.  Adhiyaman demonstrates that you don’t always need lectures on friendship for its worth to be understood by viewers.  And since it is a domestic drama and not a hero-centric film, all characters are given equal prominence.  As a result, the relationships are supremely well fleshed out.

Watch the scene at 32:22 and the climax at 2:17:49

Autograph, on the other hand, is vintage Cheran.  Cheran has never shied away from direct expression of feelings.  When he isn’t firing on all cylinders (as a writer), one gets the feeling that the characters are mere mouthpieces for what he wants to say to his viewers.  At his best, especially when he has the support of good actors, his characters spout lines that might sound preachy but they seem to own the lines with such conviction that the writer seems invisible.  That is exactly what happens in the case of Sneha and Cheran. 

Sneha comes into Cheran’s life at a time that he is going through a low phase.  He helps him rebuild his life, yes.  But despite Cheran being the film’s central character, this portion of the film is not just about the impact of Sneha on Cheran’s life.  It is also about her.  Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the restaurant scene.  Prior to this, Sneha would have bumped into her former love interest. (We are told that she had attempted suicide when the relationship failed.) When Cheran mocks her, she slaps him.  Upon returning to her senses, she apologizes to him.  And explains that the reason she got mad was because she sees him as a pillar of strength that helped her face her fears and overcome her weaknesses. (Interestingly, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil… also featured a line where Anushka Sharma calls Ranbir Kapoor her “strength” and her lover her “weakness.”) Scenes like these breathe with so much life that later on, when Sneha speaks of their friendship in an idealistic manner, one gets the feeling that the character – and by extension, the director – has earned the right to be a bit preachy and philosophical. 

Click on Play to go to the restaurant scene:

The unconscious ability of good friends to know precisely when to say what to one another, their equally unshakeable confidence in communicating through silences, the undemonstrative yet unwavering displays of support and above all, the reassuring constancy amidst highs, lows, trials and tribulations.  These are what I truly find enriching in friendships, in life and on screen.  It is entirely unfair of me to expect Mithran R Jawahar (writer-director of Thiruchitrambalam) to showcase the kind of friendships that Adhiyaman and Cheran did.  But by the same token, movie viewing can be an intensely individual, personal experience as much as it is a communal one.  And the (friend)ships that will stay afloat in my memory sans any risk of sinking are the ones in Thotta Chinungi and Autograph.


Anonymous said...

And the (friend)ships that will stay afloat in my memory sans any risk of sinking are the ones in Thotta Chinungi and Autograph.

-- That says it! Any art form is a personal experience and movies definitely so. Makes me want to see all three movies after reading your review! :) Enjoyed it.

Zola said...

Superb! I never cease to be amazed at the depth you bring to what appears to be 'just a movie'

Yes. MThe way we relate to movies is a personal experience and it is our deep seated individual microchips which determibe what our experience is

Ram Murali said...

Anonymous / Zola - thank you for your comments. :)