Director: Raj Shetty
Cast: Raj Shetty, Shailashree Mulki
One reason for my interest in Ondu Motteya Kathe (The Story of a Bald Man) was autobiographical. Finally, a protagonist I can see in the mirror. The second was archaeological, for I spent quite a bit of time trying to excavate examples of films whose leads are less than conventionally good-looking, let alone lacking something as taken-for-granted in a “hero” as hair. (No, Bharath Gopi doesn’t count. Malayalam cinema is its own little ecosystem.)
I came up with weight issues (Size Zero, Telugu), skin-colour issues (Naanum Oru Penn, Tamil) – but even here, we are talking about a “normal” actress putting on weight for the role (as opposed to an overweight actress being cast), or a fair-complexioned heroine painting herself black. The insidious message is this: she’s not really ugly.
Raj B Shetty, the director and lead actor of Ondu Motteya Kathe, is a bald man. OK, balding – but the difference doesn’t matter to the character he plays, 28-year-old Janardhana, who’s not having much luck in the marriage market. As a broker explains, there are two problems: (a) the man is bald(ing), and (b) he’s a Kannada lecturer. As this indictment is being delivered, Janardhana is watching a film clip featuring his favourite actor, Rajkumar, who proclaims, “Kannadiga self-respect, bravery and valour will outlive the Pallavas.” The sentiment, today, has clearly gone the way of Janardhana’s hair. At his college, teachers swoon over the new lecturer, who is (a) handsome (i.e. he has hair), and (b) teaches English.
I thought of the Tamil drama Kattradhu Thamizh, whose protagonist bemoans the lack of interest in learning one’s mother tongue – but Ondu Motteya Kathe is a far lighter film. For a while, it’s exactly the kind of comedy the trailer promised, with laugh-out-loud lines and scenes. Here’s Janardhana’s father after yet another rejection from a girl: “He doesn’t have hair, it seems. Doesn’t he work for a living? Can hair become food?” And the episode at the headmaster’s office is a gem. Janardhana takes in a student who’s mocked him in class, but somehow, he seems to be the one who ends up punished. The comedy isn’t hammered home, with poke-in-the-ribs background music. It’s sweet, understated – even a tad melancholic, like a Hollywood indie movie.
But slowly, Ondu Motteya Kathe moves towards a genre that could be called an anti-rom-com: despite the finding-a-mate hilarity, there’s an undertow of genuine sadness
At first, we think the film is going the Chhoti Si Baat route, where a young man fatally short on confidence seeks the help of a ‘love guru’. As the latter, Prakash Tuminadu is a riot. He plays a peon named Srinivas, and his loaded glances cracked me up. On his instigation, Janardhana writes a love letter – only, in chaste Kannada, with poetic flourishes. (“Your voice is like the early-morning cuckoo singing. Your smile is like the full moon shining.) Srinivas reads out the letter, deadpan, and offers this advice: “Along with this, give her a small Kannada dictionary.” He then instructs Janardhana about writing a real love letter. The opening words: “Hi dear.”
But slowly, Ondu Motteya Kathe moves towards a genre that could be called an anti-rom-com: despite the finding-a-mate hilarity, there’s an undertow of genuine sadness. It comes from the desperation that leads a perfectly sane man like Janardhana to assume that a way-out-of-his-league woman is into him. (This episode, though, is terribly clichéd, easily the film’s low point.) Or consider how the Economics lecturer who doesn’t reciprocate Janardhana’s interest until he’s engaged to a plump woman named Sarala (Shailashree, who carries the fat-shaming with great dignity) hides her disappointment by mocking Sarala’s “stoutness.”
Janardhana himself is no saint. On the one hand, he’s singing a very funny song, exhorting women to give bald men a chance. (The choreography is brilliant.) On the other, the only trait he sees in himself is his baldness. That he’s a Kannada scholar, that he’s a decent man – none of this matters. And this complex manifests itself in a bizarre way: he wants a “good-looking” girl, almost as if to make up for his not being “good-looking.” Raj B Shetty’s deeply felt performance makes it easy to be charitable to Janardhana, that he’s not just the average Indian MCP who brings nothing to the table and expects a Miss World for a wife.
And something unexpected happens. Our sympathies shift from Janardhana to Sarala. Like him, she has a mother nagging her to get married. So at some level, this is also the story of people who are considered less than worthy in the arranged marriage market. But despite this undertow of genuine sadness, there’s all that finding-a-mate hilarity. Rajkumar’s songs and lines function as comic commentary, and even cruelty is served with a smile. Sarala’s ex dumps her because his friends think they look like brother and sister. Her reaction is a marvellous piece of writing: it involves cake.
The last stretch parks itself in predictable rom-com territory, with a piece of advice doubling as a message right out of a 1960s melodrama. I knew I was being manipulated, but I teared up anyway. That’s one definition of irresistible.
Watch the traier here: