Saturday, June 3, 2023

What will I remember? - Thoughts on "Modern Love Chennai"

It has been a few days since I watched “Modern Love Chennai.”  There is one image that refuses to leave me. It is that of TJ Bhanu on the hospital bed, wordlessly checking on her newborn with a mix of anxiety, fear and hope that the child should not have the eye condition that she has.  Of the six stories in this anthology, this episode - titled “ImaigaL” - is the best.  On top of the stellar performances by the lead pair (Ashok Selvan plays Bhanu’s husband) and the beautiful writing, the reason I liked this story the most was because this was the one that felt most “modern” to me.

That is because “ImaigaL” (directed by Balaji Sakthivel) is the episode that affirms my thought that modern is a way of thinking and acting.  Modern is not necessarily about the clothes you wear, the language you speak, the places you mingle in.  In my book, something that shakes the status quo for the better is what is modern.  And if I stick to that criterion, “ImaigaL” is unquestionably modern.  A man marries a woman with the knowledge that she is going to gradually lose her vision.  The fact that he would like to marry her despite this condition is presented matter-of-fact sans any overt emphasis.  Even when he has a disagreement, he immediately realizes the error of his ways and is not hesitant to kneel down apologetically in the middle of the road.  There is a small yet meaningful moment where we see him awake while his wife and kid are asleep.  We get to know later that he was actually thinking of her passion for the ‘veeNa.’  How often have we seen a male character on screen so insistent on being a tool for genuine, abiding empowerment.  If Bhanu sparkles in her author-backed role, Ashok Selvan too is wonderful in playing a foil.  This pair of mature performances is the best thing about this anthology.

Bharathiraja’s “Paravai Kootil Vaazhum MaangaL” is arguably the first time in Bharathiraja’s entire career where the creator is an invisible presence.  Known for his emphatic style of narration and his signature touches, he has experimented with a style of narration that was his friend Balu Mahendra’s (whom he has dedicated this to) forte.  This is the tale of a married man who falls out of love with his wife and falls for another woman.  While the direct conversations and the philosophical lines do work, I wish the story had done more justice to the pain felt by the Ramya Nambeesan character.  For instance, we hear her tell Vijayalakshmi (who plays the ‘other’ woman with remarkable dignity) that her initial reaction to Kishore breaking the news, was quite intense.  A quick vignette would have had more impact than the line uttered by her. But I will remember this segment for the two contrasting selfies that dovetail seamlessly, to capture the arc of the three main leads.

“Lalagunda BommaigaL” directed by Raju Murugan adopts a lightweight approach to some rather serious issues.  I liked how the lead character is shown as shrugging off betrayals and disappointments and is looking to rebuild her life.  The ending was unexpected but the quirky finish was in sync with the tone of the rest of this short.

“Kadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukara Emoji” will work better for movie buffs than others.  Ritu Varma is cast against type but she finds the right pitch for her performance, being perky without overdoing the ditziness.  Varma plays a die-hard movie buff who sees a bit of the movies creep into every element of her life.  I liked the fact that she is not shown as having to shed that bit of craziness in order to be happy.  Sometimes one gets the sense that a filmmaker crafts zany characters to have laughs at their expense.  That is not the case here.  Thanks to the surefooted writing of Reshma Ghatala and the direction of Krishnakumar Ramakumar, we smile with her, not laugh at her.  And that makes for a feel-good experience.

“Margazhi” (directed by Akshay Sunder) is a lovely story of a high school girl who develops feelings for a boy in her class.  Balaji Tharaneetharan’s writing is exquisite and captures the psyche of the adolescent kids in a dignified manner.  Tamil Cinema has had its share of cheap, exploitative films set in the high school milieu.  “Margazhi” is a class apart.  The focus is on getting into the mind and heart of the girl who is going through a tricky period of her student life.  The way the story concludes feels just right in its balance of closure and open-endedness.  Something that is so symptomatic of the way things play out in that stage of life.  Ilayaraja’s beautiful score captures the beats of the heart as well as it does the moments where the heart skips a beat!

And finally Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s “Ninaivo Oru Paravai." His two full-length feature films “Aaranya Kaandam” and “Super Deluxe”, both splendid films, were as offbeat and bold as “Ninaivo Oru Paravai.”  But they had two things that this segment does not have - a narrative flow that kept us hooked and characters (as unconventional as they were) that we were interested in.  It is not necessary for lead characters to be likable per se.  But they need to be interesting enough for us to be invested in their story. (Sri Priya from “AvaL Appadithan” comes to mind.) Here, the in-your-face lines and the supposedly ‘shocking’ moments left me completely unmoved and strangely disengaged.

I recently came across a thought-provoking quote attributed to Atul Chitnis - “You are never remembered for doing what is expected of you.”  This applies to both filmmakers as well as the characters in their films.  The most memorable love stories in this anthology are the ones where the surprises spring onto us in a pleasant way, gently setting aside mores and conventions and, in their place, ushering in fresh thinking.  If that is not “modern”, then I do not know what is!