How interesting that Trisha's two most memorable films — and her two most memorable performances — have been stories about unrequited love. There was 96, recently. And before that, Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. Both times, she moved on, at least to the extent she could. The man is stuck. Perhaps it's no accident that Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn, Gautham Vasudev Menon's short film that picks up where VTV left off, opens with the camera peering into Karthik's room through the grills of a window, as though it were a prison. Today, of course, he is "imprisoned" because of COVID-19. But then, he's still confined in a prison of memories. "Divya brushed her teeth…" he types out, then deletes the scene in his screenplay and writes, "Divya was alone at home…" That's what he wants. "Divya" without anyone around, "Divya" without her husband and her twins…
A small, very small, meta detour is inevitable, here. During the call Karthik and Jessie have in this short film, which lasts a little over 12 minutes, they speak of Mani Ratnam's Mouna Raagam. Divya is the heroine's name. Karthik is the name of the actor who played her unrequited love. The unrequited lover's psyche is a strange thing. Or maybe it's just that the critic's view is a strange thing. Without the (enormous) baggage of VTV, Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn would just be a short story about a man calling his ex. But how can anyone forget what happened in those 167 minutes, 10 years ago? Especially with the strains of Aaromale playing as Karthik picks up his phone… Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn — shot on iPhones, with quarantined actors and crew — is now a stopgap epilogue to a never-ending novel.
The Karthik-Jessie story is such an ongoing saga that he doesn't even need a "hello" when she picks up. All he has to say is: "Kerala-la irukke-nu theriyum!" He's been e-stalking her sister's Facebook page. That's where he's seen her. He asks her why she didn't let him know, as though she owed him that information. It's that strange thing with ex-es. They're no longer a part of your life, and yet, they are. I grinned when he asks about her twins (as though he cares
This "aalu" appears to be the most sorted kind of person, the most practical kind of person, the arranged-marriage kind of person, the kind of person who'd never writhe in unrequited love. He's off doing community service. He's being useful, unlike Karthik — but then self-pity has a way of leading to self-absorption. The way STR winces when he makes the call tells us that the wound is still fresh, as though it happened yesterday. This call is not about others, about the rest of the Corona-coping world. It's about himself. He cannot write. He wants Jessie to be the muse who'll kickstart his creativity. He doesn't even let her finish what she's saying about her "aalu" and the good work the man is doing in the locality. He cuts her off. He says: I need you! No one else can fix me!
When Jessie picks up the call, she opens the glass door leading to the garden and speaks to Karthik from there. It's what we do when we want some privacy during a call. We go elsewhere. It's probably an instinctive reaction for Jessie, even though her "aalu" isn't around. This is a call she won't take inside her house, inside the home with the family unit. But when Karthik says "I need you," she steps back inside and sits down. "Inside" was for family. "Outside" was for Karthik. Now, the lines blur. It's no longer a casual catch-up call. But then, knowing the intensity with which Karthik's passion burned, how can any call of his be "casual"?
He talks about the problems most filmmakers are facing today. Will audiences return to theatres? Two films on which production has stopped. Blah blah Blah. He tells her, "I need your love," and you see on Trisha's face a look that says everything from "poor guy" to "how do I handle this" to "shit, why did I pick up this call"! One aspect surprised me, that they've still been in touch: emails, phone calls, and oddly, letters. Do people write those anymore? I'd have thought Jessie would have opted for a clean break, but then she's… "Messy Jessie"! In VTV, she kept vacillating between her family and Karthik. In the 10 years since, she's been corresponding with Karthik. Knowing him, shouldn't she have realised that every bit of communication is a spark of hope for him? But then, that's why she's Jessie!
And look at him, now. He's imagining there's no one else in her life and saying he needs her. He wants to touch her. He wants to live by her feet, as though she's a goddess and he's the eternal devotee. And look at Jessie! She's still listening. She isn't cutting him off. Is a part of her getting some kind of satisfaction that someone loves her this way, in a way her "aalu' probably does not, and probably cannot? (I imagine his is the kind of love that pecks her cheek when he returns from work and asks, by default, "How was your day?") She says, "I love you, Karthik!" She says it's only because she wants him to be okay, but it's Jessie we're talking about, so one never knows.
But what she tells Karthik is what she wants to believe: that she started corresponding with him only after telling her "aalu", that she loves him, that she had her children only after falling in love with the man. But there's still one part of all this that points to the Messy Jessie from VTV, when she says: "Nee illaama naan vera oru vaazhkai-ku poyitten… Angeyum ellaam azhaga irukku!" I smiled at the "angeyum" — not "ange", note, but "angeyum"! She's not saying that the life she's made for herself is beautiful. She's saying that that life is also beautiful — and this can only serve as an acknowledgement to Karthik that the life she had with him was beautiful, too, and she still feels that it was.
And now we get into slightly painful (for Karthik) comedy. He wants Jessie to declare that she's still madly in love with him. She uses the F-word that no torch-carrying ex wants to hear. She says she's still fond of him. She thinks of him as her third child. Hah! And yet, she says there's no one else that's messing up this thing that they still have. They are, in turns, messing themselves up. Huh? Lady, make up your mind! She ends with a pep talk: People will come to you. Now there's Netflix and Amazon and they all need content. Blah blah blah! She says, "Ellaame seri aayidum." If only she knew!
She's all smiles when she hangs up. At the beginning of the call, he wanted her to fix him. "Mission accomplished," as she says. But after the call, the smile vanishes. She's thinking something, which could be anything from "how long can I keep doing this?" to "did I do the right thing 10 years ago?" With Karthik, though, there are no doubts. His writing block is cleared. He completes his screenplay, with AR Rahman's soothing balm of a hum in the background. But look at the final words on the page: "Some people, some women, they just don't go away from you, from your soul." Whether or not Gautham Vasudev Menon makes another short film about these characters, the KarthikJessie-verse will keep going on. Karthik will dial that yenn again.