Director: Gopi Nainar
Cast: Nayanthara, Sunu Lakshmi, Ramachandran Durairaj, J Vignesh, Ramesh
The line of female District Collectors in Tamil cinema isn’t a long one, and these women are usually seen in relation to their men. Janaki (Sowcar Janaki), in Iru Kodugal, became a Collector because she was rejected by her mother-in-law (and thus, lost her husband). In the 1960s, it was an either/or. You could either be a powerful woman or be in a relationship. You’d think things would have changed in the 80s, but it actually got worse in Aaniver, where Arukkani (Saritha), whose villager-husband suffered an inferiority complex, gave up her post and moved back to his village, because being his wife was more important than being the Collector. These films were battle-of-the-sexes relationship dramas, where the woman was punished, in a sense, for her ambition.
As for a husband or boyfriend, there’s no mention -- and probably no need. Who needs a hero when the heroine can defy the corrupt MLA and walk away in slow motion?
The most significant aspect of Aramm (Good Deed), written and directed by Gopi Nainar, is that Madhivadhani (Nayanthara) is defined only by her job. All we know about her is that she’s the Collector. Everything else -- that she cares for people, that she has integrity, that she has a never-say-die attitude -- is a function of her job. There are no parents in the picture, not even in a photograph at home -- because we never see her home. The film’s locations are the places Madhivadhani needs to be in an official capacity. As for a husband or boyfriend, there’s no mention -- and probably no need. Who needs a hero when the heroine can defy the corrupt MLA and walk away in slow motion?
In the tiny category of female-oriented dramas, Aramm is different from the cutesy (and somewhat self-congratulatory) Jyotika vehicles we’ve seen of late. Sure, Madhivadhani anchors the film (both as a character, and due to Nayanthara’s star power), but the film doesn’t make her the loudspeaker for its messages. (At least, not all of them. More about this, later.) In a way, you could see Aramm as a film where a heroine gets to do what the hero usually does: belt out anti-government, pro-poor lines, and end up a saviour to the masses neglected by the establishment. But there’s no hollow triumphalism. By the end, we are left with the sense that it’s a long road, and Madhivadhani has taken but the first step.
The film is structured around an ugly framing device, where Madhivadhani is questioned about her actions by a superior. There’s nothing we see (or hear) here that isn’t in the flashbacks that surround this device -- but you can see why they put it in there, because otherwise, with a linear narrative, we wouldn’t see Madhivadhani until about the halfway mark. There’s enormous integrity in the storytelling in the early portions of the flashback, set in the drought-stricken village of Kattur. Like the best non-fiction writing (and like Thanneer Thanneer, whose shadow is impossible to shake off), we get a glimpse of not just the issue at hand but also the lives of the affected people.
The stretch that introduces the family of five (Sunu Lakshmi as the mother and Ramachandran Durairaj are devastatingly effective) is brilliant. It’s the kind of densely textured street poetry I thought only Manikandan could write. (His Kaaka Muttai boys play the couple’s sons.) We see a family in isolation: the father wants his son to study (the boy would rather spend his time swimming); the mother wants to buy an expensive (for them) cake for her daughter’s birthday. We also see this family’s connection to the local government (a nurse who dispenses polio drops) and to the larger idea of India (the village lives near a rocket-launching station, one of the nation's sources of pride). A cake at the local bakery is even shaped like a rocket.
These villagers have smartphones but have no water. We can send rockets into space, and yet, nothing can be done about this little girl stuck deep inside the earth
The plucked-from-the-headlines story takes off when the daughter falls into an open borewell. Madhivadhani hears about it and calls the Tehsildar, who calls his subordinate, and then the fire brigade arrives, as does a medical team, and then the army enters the scene. It’s like a satirical nursery rhyme. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put together a rescue plan. The ironies hit hard. These villagers have smartphones but have no water. We can send rockets into space, and yet, nothing can be done about this little girl stuck deep inside the earth.
This is where Aramm begins to lose its footing. The tone becomes shriller, Ghibran’s score turns more hysterical, and the preaching starts to pile up. It isn’t the message itself -- it’s the delivery. A Joker made us care about its characters as well as the circumstances they were trapped in, the personal as well as the political. In Aramm, the only people with some kind of inner life are the girl’s parents, and they’re gradually reduced to wailing props -- save for the rare flourish where we see the father peering down the borewell, a face framed in a circle and surrounded by endless blackness. This visual is worth the thousand words that come before and after.
Because people keep talking -- apparently between themselves, but actually at us. (For example: How we worship film stars and politicians but not scientists.) I laughed when they try to use a rope to rescue the girl and a villager mocks it as a high-tech device, but not every barb lands as smoothly. “Are you for the government or against the government,” Madhuvadhani is asked. It’s just more frothing at the mouth -- the line could be axed and the film would be no different. And some images are shockingly crude. In the midst of all this turmoil, the local minister is at Toni & Guy, getting a head massage and a pedicure. Why not just hang a “Politicians Are Pricks” board around his neck?
As it goes on (and despite a dignified Nayanthara trying to hold it all together), Aramm becomes exhausting to watch. I wondered if the two halves -- one so delicate and alive, the other so heavy-handed -- were made by two different people. But there’s no denying the importance of what’s being said. The little girl, by the end, becomes a symbol for the people neglected by the government, and the end is a sad, shocking reminder that, even if the entire district’s machinery is at hand, it’s basically every man for himself. And every woman for herself, too. I loved the scene where Madhivadhani gets a call from grateful villagers (she’s helped them get water), but is unable to feel satisfied about a job well done because she’s now struggling with a new issue, that of the trapped girl. Maybe that’s why we don’t see much of a personal life. Where’s the time?
Watch the trailer of Aramm here: