Dharma Durai (2016)

Dharma Durai poster

Seenu Ramasamy’s Dharma Durai tells the story of a doctor from a small village, his highs and lows and his final redemption through the love of a good woman – of course! The film has a slow start and even after the main character is established the pacing is occasionally uneven and erratic, but it has excellent performances from the main leads, a good story and plenty of thought provoking themes around social justice, caste, dowry and responsibility. However, it’s not as nearly as heavy as that sounds and even though the story is about an alcoholic, there are plenty of light hearted moments making the film an overall entertaining as well as a thought-provoking watch.

The film starts in the village where Dharma Durai (Vijay Sethupathi) roams around making a nuisance of himself, mainly to the embarrassment and general detriment of his brothers. Dharma is an alcoholic which explains his rather erratic behaviour, although it did take me a while to realise that alcohol addiction was the problem. It’s not immediately obvious and Vijay Sethupathi is subtle in his portrayal of a drunk, so it’s not until a village event that the full extent of his alcoholism is made clear.

Dharma accuses his brothers of cheating the villagers with the chit fund they run and seems intent on making life difficult for them, to the extent that I started to sympathise with the family, even though their method of dealing with Dharma is fairly extreme. The brothers decide to lock Dharma up in a shed until they can decide what to do with him, and the signs are clear that Dharma is not destined for a long and happy life. Dharma’s only well- wisher is his mother Pandiyamma (Radhika Sarathkumar) and in classic filmi style she arranges a way for him to escape his temporary prison.

Once he escapes the village, Dharma goes back to Madurai and the medical college where he had studied to become a doctor. The film moves into flashback as we relive Dharma’s years as a student and his romance with fellow student Stella (Srushti Dange). I would love to know if medical students in India really do wear white coats and stethoscopes round their necks all the time. It seems odd to me but at least means that they are easy to recognise as medical students rather than trainee engineers or something else entirely!

Dharma is a good student despite a tendency to spout poetry at the least provocation, and ultimately he follows his professor’s advice to return home and work for the village. After all, it’s the common people who have paid for his degree so he is morally obligated to go back and serve these people. The ethical message here is hammered home a little too much, and the students are all somewhat unnaturally altruistic, but overall the flashback is a pleasant interlude that shows Dharma is a much better light and starts to explain his past.

Back in the present day Dharma tries to track down his old friends – Stella and her friend Subhashini (Tamannaah) who also had an unrequited crush on Dharma. These were the last people he felt who really cared about him, and eventually he does manage to meet up with Subhashini and relates the series of events which led to him becoming an alcoholic.

This is the best part of the film and the flashback to the love story between Dharma and villager Anbuselvi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is beautifully done. Aishwarya is easily the best of the female leads and her characterisation of a farmer’s daughter is simply perfect. Anbuselvi is more than she first seems and it’s no surprise that Dharma is immediately smitten. Vijay and Aishwarya have wonderful onscreen chemistry and Sukumar’s excellent cinematography makes this golden time appear even more radiant as the two romance each other through song.

What makes Dharma Durai interesting is the clash between new and old. Dharma is college educated but comes back to his old village to work as he feels that is his duty. But once back at home, his modern ideas don’t sit well with his brothers’ ideas of caste and dowry and that leads to the serious conflict between them. There is also the contrast between Dharma’s old love – the beautiful and traditional Anbuselvi, and his new romance with the more modern and well educated Subhashini. Subhashini has a shiny new medical clinic of her own, but also has an ex-husband to deal with and her own share of past issues that make it difficult for her to reach out to Dharma. The only real downside to the story is the contrived and unlikely method that Seenu Ramasamy uses to get Dharma back to the village at the end. It’s all a little too far-fetched and unlikely, but why should we let any of that get in the way of a good ending!

One other issue is that the story has a few too many stops and starts as it moves from one portion of Dharma’s life to the next and as a result not all the scenes flow smoothly. The moral messages tend to be over-emphasised which also slow down the narrative and move attention away from the characters. However, once the camera is focusing on Dharma and Anbuselvi, or Dharma and Subhashini the film comes alive again and draws us back into the story. Vijay Sethupathi is wonderful throughout, and his Dharma is the absolute essence of a village boy done good for most of the film. Tamannaah is also excellent as Subhashini, although she doesn’t click quite as well with Vijay as Aishwarya, but her depiction of a career woman with a very definite set of values is nicely done. Radhika Sarathkumar is very good as Dharma’s long suffering mother while Rajesh makes a brief but notable appearance as the college professor. The portrayal of village life and a rural clinic is also very well done – I’m sure that I have seen many of those patients in my trips into rural Tamil Nadu on a health camp each year, which probably adds to the whole authentic vibe I got from the film.

Dharma Durai is an interesting story that just needs a little tighter editing to move proceedings along more consistently. The songs are good, the cinematography excellent and both Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh are on top form, making a perfect match. Worth watching for their performances and for Tamannaah Bhatia and the rest of the cast who all do their part in bringing this fascinating slice of village melodrama to life.

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Pannaiyarum Padminiyum

Pannaiyarum PadminiyumPannaiyarum Padminiyum is another Tamil film I watched initially because I liked the soundtrack and thought the story sounded interesting. It’s based on an original short film with the central idea extended into a full length feature by writer/ director S.U. Arun Kumar. It’s a sweet story about a village landlord and his pride and joy in a vintage Padmini car that he borrows from a friend. While the film is mostly about the various characters in the village and how the car comes to represent their dreams, there are a number of love stories interwoven into the narrative – including one between the driver Murugesan and a village girl Malar. But the best love story is the one between the landlord and his wife Chellamma, and that’s the one that makes this film well worth a watch.

Pannaiyar (Jayaprakash) and his wife Chellamma (Tulasi) have an open house policy, where anyone in the village who needs anything can come and get their help at any time of day or night. They’re somewhat hindered in their efforts by their hapless servant Peddai (Bala Saravanan) who tends to jinx everything he touches, but really the only blot on their horizon is their daughter Suja (Neelima Rani). Suja visits her parents regularly and always manages to remove something of value from the house despite the best efforts of her mother. Chellamma is incensed by her daughter’s avaricious behaviour and Suja very definitely isn’t the usual ‘good daughter’ featured in rural Tamil dramas. I like this different take on the mother/daughter dynamic, particularly since Chellamma is kind and accommodating to everyone else. It’s only with her daughter that she has a mutually antagonistic relationship although it’s clear that the reason for it is the heartache Suja causes her father.

When Shanmugam (Mahadevan) lends his Padmini car to Pannaiyar, at first he is content to just stand and look at it as it sits in his yard. But then there is a village emergency and the car is needed to drive a young boy to hospital. Luckily for Pannaiyar, local farmer Murugesan (Vijay Sethupathi) knows how to drive a tractor, so he is quickly enlisted to drive the car to the hospital. Murugesan is introduced trying to race against a bicycle, so we know that he has a need for speed – even if his tractor can’t even win a race with a pedestrian let alone a cyclist. For Murugesan the Padmini car is a whole new world and he quickly becomes totally besotted with the car, as are Peddai and Pannaiyar and pretty much all the kids in the village. The joy they have in the simple presence of the car is well captured by the delight each shows in cleaning and looking after the vehicle, and the squabbles that occur as each asserts his right to each task.

Chellamma is the only sensible one who keeps her distance, although she is secretly amused by the men’s absorption with an inanimate object. She knows that the car does not belong to Pannaiyar and she refuses to have anything to do with the car and their obsession.

Chellamma is an interesting character who has very definite ideas about her role in life and how to best manage her ‘family’. This includes Murugesan and Peddai as well as her husband and she keeps everyone in line so subtly that they don’t realise just how they are being looked after. When the car unexpectedly is left to them, Chellamma tells her husband that she will only ride in the vehicle once he has mastered the art of driving. Naturally then Pannaiyar accepts the challenge and determines that he will learn to drive in time to take her to the temple for their wedding anniversary. However this means that Murugesan will have to relinquish control of the wheel, so the lessons go very slowly indeed.

Meanwhile Murugesan falls in love with Malar (Iyshwarya Rajesh) when he ends up transporting a body for a funeral. It’s an interesting situation for a love story to start and Murugesan’s struggle not to approach Malar on such a sad day is charmingly depicted.

Eventually Malar and Murugesan do manage to get together although the romance is kept low-key with Malar very definitely in second place behind the car in Murugesan’s affections. Iyshwarya Rajesh is lovely here and has a lovely dynamic with Vijay Sethupathi. She has a small role but makes an impact every time she appears onscreen, while Vijay Sethupathi avoids appearing as a ‘star’ and is perfectly understated, keeping to the background when required but still impressive when the focus is on Murugesan.

The more developed romance is the one between Pannaiyar and Chellamma which shows a well-established and happy marriage, even after all these years. They have their ups and downs, disagree about their daughter, but despite the occasional argument they have a very strong and loving relationship. Each tries to save the other from unhappiness as much as they can and the love the two have for each other comes across clearly in all the thoughtful things they do for each other. Even with all the sentimentality, the romance never feels too sickly sweet but rather is warm and affectionate. Tulasi is just fantastic here, and has some wonderful facial expressions, particularly behind her husband’s back. Jayaprakash is also excellent, and this song perfectly shows their sweet relationship.

While the story is very simple it’s effective, and the car becomes the symbol of the dreams and desires of the various characters. Murugesan wants to keep driving as it gives him enough prestige to attract Malar, and he is worried that he will lose his job when the landlord learns to drive. Pannaiyar wants to drive to impress his wife on their wedding anniversary, while Chellamma wants her husband to be happy. The boys in the village just want to sit in the car and dream big dreams, with one even collecting 5 rupees to pay Peddai to let him sit in the front seat. It’s all very charmingly told and when the inevitable problems occur they are dealt with sensibly, without resorting to excessive melodrama. The soundtrack from Justin Prabhakaran is also excellent, with each song perfectly fitting the situation and well placed in the narrative to move the story along. I love the lyrics in this, including the references to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and other classic cars – it’s such a happy song too!

Pannaiyarum Padminiyum is a simple story that focuses on the relationships between the central characters and on their naive dreams and aspirations. With such a limited focus the story does end up feeling just a tad too long by the end with some of the diversions adding little to the overall plot. There are one of two moment of mushy sentimentality in the relationship between the landlord and his wife which really weren’t needed as Tulasi and Jayaprakash are at their best when they keep their relationship natural and realistic. Definitely one to watch for the main leads and a sweet story that’s warm and engaging right to the end. 4 stars.

Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai is a little gem of a film that premièred at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened at a number of Film Festivals around the world before winning two National Awards earlier this year. It tells the story of two young brothers and their quest to raise money to buy a pizza when a new shop opens up in their area. However this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The two boys live in a slum area and finding enough money for their day-to-day necessities is difficult, never mind Rs. 299 for something as exotic as a pizza. As they set about achieving their goal, the story touches on poverty, corruption in politics, globalisation and the daily cons run by locals in the area, but mainly it’s the story of two young boys and their quest to buy their very own pizza.

We never find out the real names of the two brothers in the film as they refer to themselves as Periya Kaakka Muttai (big crow’s egg) and Chinna Kaakka Muttai (little crow’s egg) after their habit of eating crows eggs when they can find them. Chinna KM (Ramesh) tempts the crows down from a tree with rice secreted away from under his mother’s watchful eye, allowing Periya KM (Vignesh) to climb up and find the eggs. Their nest robbing is one of the early scenes and the charm of the two brothers is captured by Periya KM’s response when he finds 3 eggs in the crow’s nest – he divides them up as one egg for each of the brothers and one left for the crow – such equality!

The two brothers live in the slums with their mother (Iyshwarya Rajesh) and their grandmother (Shanthi Mani) while their father (Nivas Adithan) is in jail. They live in a small one room shack which is clean, tidy and incredibly well organised despite the surrounding squalor on the streets. Much of the family’s money goes to a lawyer, who is supposed to be working to free their father, but there seems to be no progress in securing his release. There is never any mention of the father’s crime or how long he has been in prison which deliberately keeps the audience in the world of the children who also have no idea what their father has done and don’t seem to care.

This technique of showing their world through the eyes of Periya KM and Chinna KM is one of the charms of the film. Life is simple for the brothers. They look for the crows’ eggs on a waste piece of land where their friends play cricket, spending the rest of their day collecting coal along the railway lines and selling it to supplement their mother’s meagre income.  Like all children they ask their mother for things well outside what she can afford; a TV and a mobile phone seem impossible when she cannot even afford to send the boys to school but the brothers happy go lucky approach to life seems to serve them well. However one day the developers move in and the land where the crow makes its nest and the children play is cleared to make way for a new pizza restaurant. Despite being forced out the children are ecstatic when the new pizzeria is completed and movie star Simbu comes to open the restaurant and eats the first slice of pizza. Watching him enjoy the novel dish is enough to convince the brothers that this is something they need to try for themselves and they begin the arduous task of raising the necessary money to buy their own pizza.

They are aided in their venture by a friend from the railroad tracks. Pazharasam (Joe Malloori) or Fruitjuice as the subtitles decide to translate his name, works on the railways but is happy to talk to the two boys and helps them find coal to sell. It’s obvious to the audience that the coal he leads them to is not free for the taking, but Periya KM and Chinna KM don’t seem to realise that this isn’t just a pile of forgotten coal and are deliriously happy that they have found the means to raise enough money to finally buy pizza. However they are quickly brought back down to earth when the restaurant security immediately calls them slum kids and refuses to let them in to buy their pizza even though they have sufficient funds. Just having the money isn’t enough and Periya KM and Chinna KM have a new goal – to raise enough money to buy new clothes that will allow them to entry to the pizzeria and their dream of pizza.

Vignesh and Ramesh are perfectly cast as the two young brothers and have plenty of impish charm and infectious energy as they roam around their area. There are plenty of note-worthy moments and small vignettes that give the whole film a feel good factor that is normally missing in films about slum dwellers. Watching the brothers wash clothes (Chinna KM wets the bed every night) allows Manikandan to juxtapose the younger brother throwing up wet clothes for his older brother to catch and hang up with a moment where the elder is distracted by watching a plane go past in the sky. His younger brother hits him in the face with the next item and the laughter chases away that brief moment of dreaming by Periya KM. There is another where Chinna M finds a toy watch in the scrap yard where they sell their coal and then takes it to a watch maker to make it work – the mix of Chinna KM’s delight in something so small as the watchmakers magnifier and his innocence as he tries to understand why his watch doesn’t work makes for beautiful cinema.

And Manikandan keeps them coming – there is the grandmother trying to make pizza for the boys when she discovers how desperately they want it, the boys attempting to sell their dog to raise money and their friendship with a richer kid who they speak to across the barrier of a metal fence. The physical barrier is nowhere near as daunting as the social divide which keeps Periya KM and Chinna KM firmly in their place but their determination is inspiring. Iyshwarya Rajesh too puts in an incredible performance as the boys’ mother and perfectly balances pride, ethics and desperation as she tries to cope without her husband and bring up her boys as best as she can. Later scenes of her interactions with the local politician and with the police are perfectly done to give her grace and dignity in trying situations and the conversations between her and the grandmother are beautifully natural. In fact all the performances are excellent with each member of the cast seemingly perfectly in their roles. Other stand-outs are Ramesh Thilak and Yogi Babu as the two local conmen trying to make a quick buck out of the brothers misfortune and Babu Anthony as the pizza shop owner, while Joe Malloori and Shanthi Mani are simply brilliant.

Manikandan makes an impressive début with Kaakka Muttai, not just writing and directing the film but also responsible for the cinematography. At any rate he makes the slums look much better than expected, giving them an almost magical appearance as seen through the eyes of the two brothers, although there is plenty of grim reality there too. However our eyes tend to slide past the garbage and debris, maybe because no-one else seems to notice it either. Manikandan seems to be an expert in multi-tasking and perhaps it’s his control over so many aspects of the film that explains why Kaakka Muttai is so completely satisfying too. The story shows the negative aspects of poverty but also illustrates that there is beauty everywhere, even in the slums, and that people are people, no matter where they come from.  I totally loved this film and particularly the two KM’s who remind me so much of the children I work with in India every year. I love their optimism and resourcefulness, and most of all their wonderful smiles and endless joy. Sure, this is a sugar coated view of the slums and there is little of the expected violence and absolute despair, but as a look at poverty through the eyes of two young boys it’s a winner all the way. Don’t miss it! 5 stars

Kaakka Muttai