Director: Nithilan Swaminathan
Cast: Bharathiraja, Vidharth, PL Thenappan, Delna Davis, Elango Kumaravel, Kalki, Ganja Karuppu
Like Maanagaram earlier this year, Nithilan Swaminathan’s Kurangu Bommai (Monkey Doll) comes with a caveat: you have to buy the coincidences. This film, too, is conceived as what has come to be known as “hyperlink cinema”, but you could just as easily call it “leap-of-faith cinema”. Viji (Delna Davis), in Chennai, walks into the exact same police station where Kathir (Vidharth), the man who slapped her father in Tanjore, happens to be handing over a stolen bag. This isn’t so much a screenplay as a carefully plotted diagram. But as in Maanagaram, the filmmaking is such a rush that this contrived, air-tight design totally takes a backseat. The director (also the writer) makes it so easy to strap yourself in for the ride.
Consider the opening scene, where a timber mill owner — Ekambaram (PL Thenappan, who creates a convincing villain without overplaying each snarl) — is on the phone with a man named Sekar (Elango Kumaravel, in chilling, career-redefining mode). He’s chewing tobacco and spitting to a side, beyond the camera’s frame. But when the camera slowly pulls back, and the frame expands, we see where the spit is landing — and instantly, our estimation of the scene (and this man) changes. Or take the marvellous scene behind a police station where a gypsy couple is reporting the loss of their child. (It’s a fantastic story!) Again, the camera moves slightly, and we see where the cop is. (We expect him to be standing in front of them.) It’s a hoot.
The scene keeps building. We follow the cop and the gypsies as they head into the station, and a single-take shot (the superb cinematography is by NS Udhayakumar) leads to a finale that made my jaw drop. Let me just leave you with the image: a ceiling fan begins to sway like a pendulum. It’s the most memorable visual of the year — not because it’s pretty, but because it’s so unexpected, as surprising as the throwaway shot (inside a storeroom in the station) of a cat with newborn kittens.
The extra bits — including the broken clock in the Ganja Karuppu character’s house, which, well, we don’t really need — expand the world of the film, give us a sense of what is happening around the central characters
We don’t need this cat. We don’t need the passengers in a crowded bus ferrying a man’s infant to his wife who is seated. We don’t need the waiter at the restaurant who chases a customer who left without paying. We don’t need the many kids (including a little girl who, scarily, takes to belting a man, or the little boy who squats in an aquarium) who pop in and out — all we need is the reminder that Kathir is still a child in the eyes of his father, Sundaram. Bharathiraja plays the old man with a tremulousness (is it age, or acting?) that’s extraordinarily touching. Rama plays Sundaram’s wife, which leads to a trivia question: Is this the first time a director is paired opposite his discovery?
But these extra bits — including the broken clock in the Ganja Karuppu character’s house, which, well, we don’t really need — expand the world of the film, give us a sense of what is happening around the central characters. If not for these grace notes, what are we left with but a plot reminiscent of Oram Po? There, an auto driver became the unwitting possessor of a smuggler’s loot dispatched through an innocent courier. Here, it’s a cabbie, Kathir.
An early scene, revolving around arranged-marriage talks, sets the tone. We keep cutting between two sets of conversations: between Kathir and Viji, and between their parents elsewhere. The story that ensues cuts similarly between two scenarios: the present, where we follow Kathir, and the past, where we follow his father. (The slightly disorienting narration adds to the intrigue. We are always two steps behind.) Should I complain at this point about the clunky zoom-in/zoom-out technique that demarcates the timelines a little too obviously? I think not — not when the editor, Abhinav Sundar Nayak, otherwise shapes the narrative with such elegance. Note the scene where at the precise instant two men set eyes on a bag they are after. They race towards it, one in happiness, one in horror. This is the dictionary definition of mixed feelings.
Delna Davis is far too expressive — she keeps trying to put the cutes into a film that has no business being in that zone
The past fills in the gaps and deepens the present, especially when we think back about the film. When Kathir meets an elderly man at a bus stop, and when a thief (Kalki) steals this man’s belongings, we think we are watching the interplay between three characters. But we see later, that there was a fourth with them right there — it’s a shocking realisation. The director uses red sparingly — the colour of a car, the paint on a door. So when the bloodletting begins, it’s a slap on the face. (Ajaneesh Loknath’s gently throbbing score is like a clammy hand squeezing the heart.)
And yet, amid these noir shadings, there are laughs. Kalki is hilarious as a man who acts tough, but can’t even break a beer bottle to threaten someone. His scene with an astrologer (another little character who makes the world of the film a bit bigger) is a riot. The only real bummer is the romantic track. Delna Davis is far too expressive — she keeps trying to put the cutes into a film that has no business being in that zone. But the others are exquisitely delineated. It’s no accident that Sekar is introduced as he plays cricket. The sport informs practically everything he does. Even when he tosses a mobile phone into a dustbin, it’s with a bowling action.
I wished Kathir had been written better. He's too nice, and Vidharth plays him too meekly — it makes the final portions tough to swallow. His character trait (he’s an avid Facebooker) pays off in terms of taking the plot forward, but the resulting series of red-herring phone calls are a drag. The relationship between Sundaram and Ekambaram, though, is a beauty. At first, Sundaram seems just an underling, a hired hand Ekambaram treats with contempt. But later (and what a moment to have this happen), Sundaram tells a story that changes everything. The director manages a nod to masala cinema’s nanben da sentiment, and yet makes it his own. The amazing thing about these young filmmakers is that they’re not just familiar with the world of Kurosawa but also KS Ravikumar.
Watch the trailer here: