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.

Mynaa

I first saw Mynaa on a flight to the UK and loved it. Although it’s a simple and fairly unexceptional love story, it’s made appealing by excellent performances from the lead actors and by the warts and all approach to village life depicted by director and screenwriter Prabu Solomon. The film is set in the lush green hill country around Munnar and Theni to the west of Madurai and beautifully shot by cinematographer M. Sukumar to make the most of the landscape. It’s a slow-paced story but the tempo suits the rolling hills and innocence of the youthful lovers.

The story starts with Suruli in jail recounting how he first met the love of his life, Mynaa. In a flashback sequence we see how Suruli takes charge of Mynaa and her mother Kuruvamma after they are thrown out into the street, taking them to his village and finding them a place with an elderly neighbour. Mynaa considers Suruli to be her saviour and is totally devoted to him despite his ostracism from the other village kids. Suruli is just as committed to Mynaa, taking her to and from school and giving the family the money he earns as a labourer. I don’t know who the child actors are who play the young Mynaa and Suruli, but their characterisations are spot on and they are both excellent. Suruli is a bit of a thug even as a child and totally disrespectful of authority but he is completely smitten by Mynaa, while she follows Suruli’s every move with devoted puppy dog eyes.

Despite everything that Suruli does for the family, Mynaa’s mother decides to marry her to an educated man from Dubai whose family live in a nearby village. Suruli is outraged and since he’s a man with a very short fuse, the decision drives him to physically attack Kuruvamma and threaten to kill her. This leads to his 15 day jail sentence and Kuruvamma takes the opportunity of Suruli’s incarceration to arrange Mynaa’s wedding. However Suruli learns of the impending ceremony in time and uses the distraction of a Diwali function in the jail to make good his escape.

Baskar, the man in charge of the jail has his own set of problems as his wife Sudha is demanding that he takes her to Madurai to spend Diwali with her family. Baskar is a fastidious man, and I like the way he takes time with his personal grooming whenever possible.

This is such a contrast to the scruffy and unkempt Suruli and illustrates the many differences between the two men. Sudha’s family are frustrated by Baskar’s seeming indifference to his wife, although it seems to be more dedication to duty rather than deliberate disregard. Sudha is portrayed as a wilful and spoilt woman who is self-absorbed and totally uninterested in her husband’s work, while Baskar seems unable to communicate with her and doesn’t even seem to try. His difficult marriage may be just one more reason why Baskar is eager to head off into the hills to capture the escaped prisoner.

Baskar sets off with another policeman Ramaiah and discovers that finding and recapturing Suruli is the just the start of his problems. On the way back to the jail they undergo various mishaps including being chased by elephants and losing their way to such an extent that they end up in Kerala. To add to Baskar’s woes, Mynaa has eloped with Suruli and her presence is a distraction plus he has to deal with constant phone calls and threats from his increasingly shrill wife and her angry brothers.

The journey deals with the evolving relationship between the young couple and the jailers as the romance lets Baskar and Ramaiah see Suruli in a new light. Of course it’s a Tamil film, so you know it’s not going to end well, but the climax has a twist which isn’t quite the one I was expecting. There is time for a light-hearted song on the bus though.

Apart from the excellent performances, what I really like about this film is the realistic depiction of village life. It’s certainly not a rural idyll. Prabhu Solomon seems to take an almost casual approach to the violence which occurs frequently throughout and is often directed against the women in the film.  Suruli is not a nice person at all despite his obvious adoration of Mynaa, and he beats his father and anyone else he thinks has been disrespectful about Mynaa or their relationship. His attacks on Kuruvamma are disturbingly brutal and her willingness to kill her daughter to avoid the stigma of a marriage to Suruli is equally shocking. Ramaiah and Baskar are just as casual about beating the prisoners and have no compunction against terrorising Mynaa to get to Suruli. There is quite a contrast between these violent scenes and the sweetly romantic moments between Suruli and Mynaa.

The intimacy of life in the village is well captured and I enjoyed the ceremony surrounding Mynaa’s coming of age when she reaches puberty. Every aspect of village life is captured and I love the framing of the shot below which includes the villagers getting ready for the Diwali celebration as well as the action between Maayi and his son. Prabhu Solomon keeps these celebrations firmly in our minds as there are fireworks and crackers everywhere the travellers stop, fuelling the frustration and anger felt by Baskar and Ramaiah as they are missing out on their own family celebrations. The interplay between Ramaiah and Suruli as they are handcuffed together is excellent and Thambi Ramayya excels in his portrayal of the hapless policeman. His character provides the comedy relief in the film and he’s although the humour is generally funny and doesn’t intrude into the action sequences, some of it could quite easily have been skipped without losing any of his character’s appeal.

Newcomer Sethu is steady as Baskar and plays his character very straight, which makes it more effective when he does break out and lose his temper with Suruli. It also provides some basis for the very final scenes of the film where Baskar seems to lose control again, although I don’t think his actions there are quite as believable as earlier in the film.

Amala Paul appears to be almost make-up free and really does look the part of a young village girl. Her eyes are incredibly expressive and she gives a convincing portrayal of an adolescent girl in love. Mynaa’s scenes with her mother are full of emotion and Amala ably conveys her character’s idealistic hopes and dreams as well as her doubts and confusion over her future with Suruli. It’s a very impressive performance, and from seeing her in other films I think she’s an actor to look out for.

Vidharth is also excellent as Suruli. He has apparently appeared in a few earlier films as a thug, and he does have that definite rowdy look with his tousled hair and scruffy beard. He excels in the scenes where he is angry and violent; however he is just as good in his romantic scenes and totally believable as an obsessed lover. As well as the great performances from the four leads, the support actors are all very good. Poovitha in particular is well cast as Mynaa’s mother and Sevvalai is excellent as Suruli’s malicious father Maayi. The performances add depth and layers to the simple story and are very effective in portraying a slice of village life.

The film has a lovely soundtrack with songs and music by D. Imman who has worked with Prabhu Solomon on his previous films. My favourite is the beautiful title track  which also has some stunning location shots.

Although it’s not a novel story, the presentation and rural setting are more unusual and while there may be some shades of other village based dramas like Paruthiveeran, the story here has a simpler feel with more naive characters. Overall it’s a well made film although I do think it would have benefitted from a little more editing and possibly one less song. Having worked in rural villages just like this in India and traveled along some very similar tracks, I felt very much at home with the characters and their surroundings which probably enhanced the appeal of the film for me. It’s worth watching for a realistic slice of village life, beautiful scenery and excellent performances. 4 stars.

Temple says

I agree with Heather that it is a nice film to look at with a pleasant soundtrack, but Mynaa isn’t a travelogue or documentary about rural custom, so I wanted more on the story and character front. Spoilers ahead so do the needful if you don’t want to know.

Film makers run a risk when they kill off the central characters at the end of the movie, especially when the genre is romance and the whole story hinges on that relationship. Will I feel the journey was worth it once I get to the end and they’re all dead?

The romantic tragedies I feel succeed fall into two broad categories. There are ‘doomed due to external forces, family or history’ films like Reshma Aur Shera or Maro Charithra (1978 version). These love stories carry a sense of inevitability and it is clear that at some point love will intersect with fate. There is heightened tension as the viewer knows the probable outcome, often before the characters seem to. Then there is the ‘I hope they make it’ type of film like Paruthiveeran. People may be at odds with family or society, but there is no mandatory death sentence. There are well realised characters that evoke affection or antipathy and have some shades of grey. In each of those examples the characters and relationships developed over the course of the story, drawing me closer, and I found the conclusions harrowing.

There are rare glimpses of something between Mynaa and Suruli but not enough to make it work as a romantic love. The relationship seemed more the obsession of a dim-witted man for a passive girl, and nothing that made me want them succeed against the odds. Amala Paul has pretty eyes but, since Mynaa spends at least 80% of her time snivelling and waiting for someone else to save her, I can’t say she had much acting scope. Suruli only has capacity for one idea in his head at a time. The writing seems to have only given Vidharth that one dimension, and he didn’t do a lot to develop the role. The settings looked natural and it was a shame that so many of the supporting characters were cardboard cut-outs, stamped ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with little else to define them as it undermined that realism. I stopped caring about what was going to happen, despite a high level of random incident and disaster.

Prabu Solomon’s direction is as clunky and clichéd as his writing. There is often little reason for things to happen or people to react (or overreact) as they do. The final scenes are rushed and gratuitously graphic. I felt that the ‘everyone dies’ climax was lazy writing and there could have been many other equally unhappy endings instead.

For my money, there is much more value and emotional insight to be found in films like Ala Modalaindi and Avakai Biryani that are entertaining and still tug the heartstrings. Seeing a woman kicked and stomped to death doesn’t qualify this as a sweet but pointless love story, and the writing overall fails to make the characters memorable or engaging enough for it to be a gripping romantic tragedy. 2 stars.