Essentially Orange Mittai is a road movie, but this isn’t a typical journey. Here, the vehicle is an ambulance and the trip one to a hospital taken by a cantankerous patient with heart problems who enjoys riling the ambulance driver and EMT. And while the story is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, it’s also a story about fathers and sons, about loneliness and even to some extent about failings within the health system in rural India. Biju Viswanath gently infuses comedy throughout the tale and allows the story to focus on the developing relationship between the EMT Sathya (Ramesh Thilak) and patient Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi). Along with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the simplicity of the story and the genuine view of isolation portrayed that make this such a great watch.
The film starts with EMT Sathya and his ambulance driver Arumugam (Arumughan Bala) attending the scene of a car accident. The driver is drunk, and after delivering him to the hospital, the dialogue between Sathya and Arumugam quickly establishes their individual characters and the ongoing tone of the film. Sathya is concerned about the driver and lets us know by a quick conversation with the nurse that he has informed the patient’s family, who are on their way. He also stops Arumugam thieving money and other valuables from their hapless patient in a scene that demonstrates his innate honesty and compassion, but Biju Viswanath also uses this to illustrate the friendship between the two men, despite their widely differing morals and work ethic. It’s a lovely beginning that quickly sets up their relationship, followed by similar brief conversations that give more background to Sathya. His father died a year ago, and when Sathya is praying, Arumugam comments that he could have shown his father this sort of respect when he was alive. It’s a throwaway line in an early scene but it resonates throughout the film, as Sathya ends up dealing with another older man who has issues with his own son.
Keeping to the theme of fathers, early on there is meeting between Sathya and his potential father-in-law (Trichy Manivannan) to begin discussing marriage with Kavya (Aashritha). Initially it appears as if Kavya’s father disapproves of Sathya, but despite misgivings he gives his permission to the marriage, as long as Sathya gives up working as an EMT and comes to work in his business instead. But that’s not what Sathya wants. He’s happy enough with Kavya, but his job means more to him than just his salary, and he’s not prepared to give it up just to appease his father-in-law. He doesn’t argue or explain his motivations, just simply asks for a day to think about it, which exemplifies his conciliatory approach to conflict seen throughout the rest of the film.
Sathya is given the job of collecting a heart attack patient from a remote location and taking him to the hospital. When Arumugam and Sathya finally make their way to the house (it’s inaccessible by ambulance) there is tense music and tilted camera shots through the gate railings and underside of a cart. It all seems to be pointing towards some supernatural event or violent shock, but the reality is rather less dramatic. The house is big, and there are faded pictures on the walls hinting at a past glory, while the rest of the house seems to be slowly decaying. When they finally find him, the man they have come to help is alone and has a grumpy and unconciliatory attitude making him prickly and difficult to deal with. He expects much but is not at all grateful, which alienates both Sathya and Arumugam right away. However Sathya is an expert in dealing with such disrespect – he deals with it every day from his supervisor and the hospital doctors, so he’s able to cope with Kailasam’s orders and quirks, eventually getting him into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.
Naturally the journey doesn’t go smoothly and there are various interruptions along the way. Throughout it all, Kailasam is difficult, demanding and a typical grumpy old man. Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t quite look old enough for the character despite colouring his hair grey, but he does get the mannerisms spot on. In particular, his nosiness about Sathyam’s relationship is brilliantly written and seems completely natural, as does his general dissatisfaction with the world at large. As the journey unfolds it’s clear that Kailasam has a fractured relationship with his son, and since Sathya is dealing with issues related to his own father, the expectation is that the two will develop a father-son style relationship. To some extent this does occur, but not until later – after Sathya has come to realise it’s easier to feel compassion towards someone he’s not related to, and begins to understand that loneliness is behind Kailasam’s difficult persona.
Ramesh Thilak frequently appears in Tamil films as the friend or sidekick, often in a comedy role, but here he plays the central character which allows him to show a more serious side. Sathya is basically a decent person who just wants to be able to help people, and Ramesh does an excellent job of blending understanding and compassion with frustration, exasperation but also acceptance as Sathya deals with Kailasam, his demanding supervisor and a hospital doctor who has no respect for his skills. He also hits the right note with his girlfriend, even giving her some good advice as he finally tells her what he really wants in his life and that it’s up to her to decide what she really wants too. Unusually, the romance is merely a side note to the film rather than a central plot point – it’s why Sathya is distracted at work and gives Kailasam an opportunity to give out some advice, but there are no odd duets or long involved romantic scenes. This is a much more down-to-earth film that doesn’t need any of this kind of drama, and the story works much better as a result.
The comedy in the film also seems to flow naturally, with Ramesh and Arumughan Bala working together beautifully to produce the laughs. Arumughan is the typical hapless idiot who will always do or say the wrong thing, but his relationship with Sathya has more to it than just these comedy interactions, which makes for a more interesting journey.
Although there are a few misses, for the most part the story gently builds a relationship between Sathya and Kailasam, even though the latter is resilient almost to the end. With Kailasam’s estrangement from his son, the friendship that develops with Sathya is bittersweet, which may be why the film is titled Orange Mittai, also referencing the bitter orange sweets Kailasam eats on his journey to the hospital. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi is credited as co-writing the film with Biju Viswanath, who is responsible for the stunning camera work and for editing the film as well as directing. This depth of involvement is perhaps why Orange Mittai at times seems indulgent, for example when Sathya stops to let an exuberant Kailasam dance in the moonlight, but this is only a minor point since overall the story is told simply and with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed the slow development of an unusual friendship and the meandering journey from hospital to hospital with a patient who really just wanted a day out and a break in routine. One to savour and enjoy as a simple reflection on the complexity of human relationships. 4 stars.