Director: Kaali Rangasamy
Cast: Manisha Yadav, Dinesh, Sujo Mathew, Kiran
There’s a surprising amount of compassion in Kaali Rangasamy’s Oru Kuppai Kathai (A Trash Tale). Early on, we see a character that’s all-too-rare in Tamil cinema: a good cop. It’s easy to find good hero cops — name-drop a big star, and he’s played a morally upright policeman. But this cop is a minor supporting character. He gives directions to a man wandering around with an address, and then, realising that the directions may have been confusing, asks if the man wants to be dropped off. Later, at the police station, he asks the boy who serves tea if he’s going to school. This character could have just been a functional presence — but the way he is written reveals something about this film’s first-time writer director.
Kaali Rangasamy plays to the gallery in a terrible scene that uses an overweight woman for cheap laughs, but note the bit where a man hands his mother and an older woman a bottle of booze, so they can unwind after a long, hard day — there’s zero judgement. A wayward youth’s affluent father turns out to be unexpectedly nice, and even the heroine, Poongodi (Manisha Yadav), is written without the judgement that was hurled towards the similar character Ambika played in the Rajinikanth-starring Engeyo Kaetta Kural (1982). Have times changed? Is Tamil cinema changing? Or is it just this one filmmaker?
This Tamil film actually makes us see the straying woman’s point of view, without turning us into puritans baying for her blood
Engeyo Kaetta Kural was made in a more judgemental era, and the woman who strayed from a marriage had to repent — even if she didn’t exactly sleep with the other man. (It was a similar story in Rosapoo Ravikkaikaari, 1979, where Deepa played the woman who did sleep with the other man.) She had to die. The men remained blameless, pure. But Oru Kuppai Kathai takes care to indict not just Poongodi’s husband (Kumar, played by choreographer Dinesh), but also her father (George). She wanted to marry someone with a white-collar job. Kumar is a sanitation worker. He collects trash for a living, which provides one dimension of the title. (The other one refers to the trashy sordidness of this tale.) This fact was hidden from Poongodi before marriage, and it’s understandable that she begins to despise Kumar. She does her best to fit in, but you can see why she objects when Kumar comes in from work and picks up their child. Poongodi wants him to bathe first. Anyone would.
Dinesh wanders around with a frozen expression, but Manisha Yadav — even if not consistently — finds her way into this girl from the pure air of Valparai who struggles to live in Chennai, inhaling the stench of the Cooum. Poongodi isn’t bad. She isn’t selfish. She’s just a girl who had a dream, which was snatched away by deceit. (Even well-intentioned deceit is… deceit.) And you can see why, when Kumar moves out of the slum and into a flat, she is drawn to their neighbour, a software dude named Arjun (Sujo Mathew). This is unprecedented. A Tamil film actually makes us see the straying woman’s point of view, without turning us into puritans baying for her blood.
What mucks up the movie is the stretch between Arjun and Poongodi. At first, Arjun is a nice guy. He helps Kumar move in. He offers his gas cylinder when he sees Kumar and Poongodi are still using a kerosene stove. He even admits to a friend that he sees in Poongodi something he doesn’t see in “city girls.” Then, the script turns 180 degrees. Given the extraordinary empathy earlier, it’s surprising when the film gets all judgemental about city folks. They drink! They have casual sex! These portions are laughably simplistic. Arjun turns into an evil cartoon, missing only horns on his head, and his friend, Kishore (Kiran), is worse. Still, given the sickening moralism in Tamil cinema, Oru Kuppai Kathai must count as progress. The film begins with the line “To err is human” and ends with “To forgive is divine.” I like to think this applies as much to the wife who strayed as the husband who deceived her. They’re both punished. Sounds like equality, no?