Kadaisi Vivasayi (2022)

I’ve enjoyed every film from M. Manikandan so far and I’m impressed by the variety of the subjects he tackles. From a reflection on globalisation in Kaakka Muttai to the thriller Kuttrame Thandanai and the very funny Aandavan Kattalai, his films have been entertaining and thought provoking, and Kadaisi Vivasayi is no exception. This time his focus is on an octogenarian farmer and preparations for a ceremony at his village temple. Mayandi (Nallandi) has lived all his life simply, used to back-breaking labour every day and farming using traditional methods. But when an incident forces an unexpected change in his life, the consequences involve everyone in the village.

What impresses me most about Kadaisi Vivasayi is the excellent cinematography and the almost documentary feel to the early part of the film as Mayandi, his life and the village are all introduced. When I worked in Tamil Nadu I stayed in small villages, one near Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) and one near Thanjavur, where I saw scenes just like this every day. My family are farmers back in Northern Ireland as well, so this felt like a real step back home for me, especially since my Great Uncle’s farm had no electricity or running water, similar to Mayandi’s house here. Mayandi and his life are introduced by the camera following him through his normal activities. His care of the land and respect for all living things is clear at every stage, while the sheer amount of hard work that he gets through each day is impressive. The slow pace also allows appreciation of the countryside; the shimmer of leaves against the sky, the lush green of new crops and the glory of peacocks, spreading their feathers against the rocks beside the fields are all featured as Mayandi makes his way to the fields.

When the village tree is struck by lightning, the elders decide that this is due to not praying at their temple and devise a festival to appease the village god. This involves an offering of rice and as the only farmer left in the village, Mayandi is tasked with producing the first grains needed for the festival. At the same time, the villagers approach the last potter to make the clay pot and horses needed for the ceremony. He too is elderly and frail, and the idea of traditional expertise being lost and time-honoured knowledge squandered as no-one takes up these customary trades underlies the plot of the film. There are caste issues in the village too and most of the villagers have sold their land to developers as the lack of water makes farming unprofitable and just too hard. Once of the villagers (Yogi Babu) has bought an elephant from the proceeds and points out that he makes more money each day from his elephant than he ever did farming. Against this backdrop, Mayandi’s decision to keep farming seems inexplicable, but he explains that without farming, he would have no reason to get out if bed each day. It’s all he has ever known, and it is his life – it is as simple as that.

But Mayandi isn’t as sanctimonious as that makes him sound and M Manikandan adds comedy though Mayandi’s interactions with the local shopkeeper who tries to sell him seedless tomatoes amongst other more modern innovations. There is comedy too with Kali Muthu as a bald man so desperate to grow back his hair that he is willing to try any outlandish remedy and a police officer (Kaalaipandiyan) who is consistently mistaken as an electrician, auto-driver and various other professions except his real job.

In addition to being old and illiterate, Mayandi is also hearing impaired, so when he is arrested for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, he doesn’t understand what is happening or why he cannot go back to his farm. The farcical nature of the court proceedings is kept grounded by the sympathetic but punctilious judge (Raichai Rabecca Philip) who would like to release Mayandi but is bound by strict rules and has to follow procedure. One story arc follows the police officer who is tasked with looking after Mayandi’s crop and how that allows him to become a more sympathetic character. While in jail, Mayandi also shows one of the other inmates how to grow a plant from seed but despite this brief respite, Mayandi is still lost without his usual day to day routine. Poignantly he can only see the tops of the trees from his cell and is reduced to looking at the sky, waiting to be able to go back to his fields.

A side plot involves Mayandi’s son Ramaiah (Vijay Sethupathi) who is said to be mentally disturbed following the death of his girlfriend. He is a follower of Murugan and wanders the area with all his possessions in two jute bags. Ramaiah wears numerous broken watches on his arm and appears and disappears randomly, seemingly unaffected by time and the burdens of everyday living. He is a spiritual figure who stops to tell his father about Murugan and it is hinted throughout the film that he is actually the most sane character despite his mental illness. Vijay Sethupathi is excellent and his portrayal here is the main reason why the character works within the film. He conveys an other-worldly quality to Ramaiah and his relationship with the natural world creates a bond with Mayandi who also has a great respect and belief in Nature.

Nallandi was a farmer rather than an actor and here he seems to be just living his life rather than acting throughout the film. He is the archetypal farmer and has a clear connection to the land. One member of his family describes him as someone who always knows when it is going to rain, and Mayandi himself tells the judge that by keeping him in jail she is killing thousands of lives, meaning his young rice seedlings. His face is mostly expressionless which fits the type of man he is playing as does his placid acceptance of everything that happens. Even during arguments in the village square he is quiet and still, clearly seeing the village issues and problems as nothing to do with himHe clearly has no time for anything that doesn’t relate to his work, as is shown when he buys what appears to be a decoration or charm in the village. When stopped by his grandson he explains that it’s actually treatment for snake bite and each part is useful in some way. Mayandi reminds me so much of my Uncle who is similarly quiet and just gets on with things the way he has always done them, without any fuss or bother! 

For much of the film, the background noise is that of nature, the sound of birds and insects, the bells on the cattle and the sound of the wind through the grasses. Santhosh Narayanan’s music suits the film and is used sparingly making it unobtrusive but effective. M. Manikandan touches on a number of social issues but they don’t impinge too much on the film and mostly occur as a brief conversation. A man who is accused of beating his wife is released by the police without charge (it’s not serious!), while Mayandi with his less serious crime is held in jail for weeks. Corruption is the police force is touched on a number of times but the funniest is when the young village girl with dwarfism mentions that she would vote for the judge without being bribed when she scolds the police for arresting Mayandi. All small moments that are effective but don’t overshadow the main story. 

The other members of the cast are excellent and the slow pace of the film suits the storyline. I really enjoyed this film and found it a real delight to watch and a feast for the senses. Enjoyable in every aspect, Kadaisi Vivasayi is simply an excellent film and one I fully recommend watching. 4½ stars

Kuttrame Thandanai (2016)

After Kaaka Muttai, M. Manikandan’s second film is a crime thriller where the sole witness to a murder is a man who is gradually losing his vision. Despite some dodgy medical diagnoses, the story itself is gripping with the identity of the murderer kept hidden right until the end. With plenty of twists and a great performance from Vidharth in the lead role, Kutrame Thandanai is an interesting film that deserves a second glance.

Right from the start we learn that Ravi (Vidharth) has a problem with his eyes. He has tunnel vision (due to retinitis pigmentosa according to his ophthalmologist), but the retinal image shown does not show the condition, and the symptoms don’t quite match up either. Ravi is told that he needs an eye transplant to ‘cure’ his problem, which is also impossible (there is no possible way to treat the retinal damage from retinitis pigmentosa), but the sum of money he needs for the operation becomes the central point of the story. The camera often shows Ravi’s view to accentuate his limited vision, which works effectively to help understand his very real problems.

Ravi works as a collector for a credit card collection office, where his co-worker Anu (Pooja Devariya) appears to have a crush on him, and as a result smooths his relationship with the manager (George Maryan). As his vision is getting worse day by day, Ravi starts to try and raise the money for his operation. He starts by trying to get a loan at work, but the amount is much too large. A glass-blowing friend (Nasser) is also unable to give him the money he needs, and it seems that Ravi is doomed to eventual blindness with the added misery of no longer being able to drive and at risk of losing his job. But then a girl who lives in his block of flats is murdered. Ravi sees a young man Arun (leave her apartment in a rage, and subsequently meets an older man at the scene. But which is responsible for the murder? 

As first Vijay Prakash (Rahman) and then Arun’s father offers Ravi money for his silence, it seems possible that he might be able to fund his operation at last. But in his search for what he needs, Ravi has to turn his back on justice for the murdered girl, Swetha (Aishwarya Rajesh). It’s a moral dilemma and writers M. Manikandan and Anand Annamalai have built the story around the question of moral ambiguity. Either of the two men could potentially be responsible for the murder, while Ravi is blackmailing them for his silence. There are also questions raised about the morality of the health service, which demands payment in full before even putting Ravi onto a waiting list for his operation. Even the other residents in the building appear to have double standards, being reluctant to speak to the police and get involved, but discussing Swetha’s death among themselves. There is also the issue that Swetha was being visited by several men, with an unspoken but inferred social agreement that she had contributed to her own death. The police are the least morally corrupt in the entire story, as they continue to look for justice for Swetha, despite being hampered by uncommunicative residents of the apartment block, and a general lack of clues. 

The crime is treated rather lightly, and the plot instead focuses on Ravi and the gradual change in his ethics as he becomes ever more desperate for money. Is it OK to demand money for his operation from a man who may potentially be a murder. As more details are revealed, Ravi’s actions become ever more questionable as we find he know who the real murderer is, and yet continues to auction his silence to the highest bidder. His actions also cause consequences for those people that he drags into his scheme, although these are only seen from Ravi’s point of view. Essentially the film shows how selfish we become when faced with a problem such as Ravi’s blindness. Not only is he losing his sight, but he’s also unable to see anything other than his own problems.

Although Kutrame Thandanai doesn’t have the instant appeal of Kaaka Muttai and the plot is also slow to develop, it does have great characterisations. It does take a long time before the crucial murder and the blackmail story also develops later in the plot, but what I like is the moral ambiguity that threads through the entire story. The characters are inherently normal people with the usual mix of corruption and innocence, and what works well is the way that we only tend to see their reactions through Ravi’s eyes. There is a good sense of Ravi’s thought processes and why he decides on blackmail as the solution for his problems, even though this is possibly the worst decision he could make. Vidharth puts in a great performance that ensure we see Ravi as a typical low-income worker who is desperate to save his sight and therefore his livelihood. I really like how he stops driving when told to do so by the doctor, but then makes more questionable decisions when faced with the potential to change his fate. In real life, many patients would not do the former, at least not until they have worked through the consequences, but few would decide to follow Ravi’s later decisions. Here too, Nasser works well as Ravi’s sounding board and source of moral counsel, even though he doesn’t really seem to understand the reality of Ravi’s vision loss. The cast all provide solid support and although Aishwarya Rajesh only has brief appearances, she still makes an impression while Pooja Devariya ensures that her character is memorable for all the right reasons.

Ilaiyaraaja’s background music is beautiful and soars above the grimy streets that M. Manikandan captures so well. The ambiguity of the characters is well depicted and the story raises many questions about morality and how it applies in different situations. Ravi’s tunnel vision is literal, but also applies to many of the other characters in the way they view the world as well as to Ravi’s own interpretation of his situation. Interesting and more complex that it first appears, Kutrame Thandanai is a worthwhile watch and highly recommended. 4 stars.