In Oththa Seruppu (also called Oththa Seruppu Size 7), R Parthiban uses several devices to push the boundaries of conventional storytelling — here’s one. He plays Ilaiyaraaja’s music not to lazily signify “the past” (like many filmmakers do) but to shape the character of a woman who’s crazy about Ilaiyaraaja’s music. She’s from a village — and, when this point comes up, we hear faint strains of ‘Senthoorapoove’ from 16 Vayathinile, the most iconic “village film” of Tamil cinema. A youthful stretch is coloured by ‘Ilamayenum Poongatru’, a “matter” moment contains shades of ‘Meendum Meendum Vaa’, and when this woman is suspected of infidelity, we get a bit of ‘Ennullil Engo’ from Rosapoo Ravikkaikari, the story of a wife who strayed. Why is this different from all the other films that used the maestro’s work? Because, we never see this woman. We simply hear about her, and this music helps to fill in the absence of her presence.
We never see anyone else, for that matter — except the narrator, Masilamani (Parthiban). He’s suspected of murder, and he has been brought to a police station for interrogation. A one-man movie is the kind of “stunt” that’s right up Parthiban’s alley, for practically every film of his is some kind of experiment. Wiki tells me that Oththa Seruppu entered the Asia Book of Records and India Book of Records for having a single person writing, directing, solo-acting and producing a film — but there are other films that have been structured around a similar gimmick, where we “see” only one person on screen, and the others are only heard (say, a voice over the phone, or in a flashback). There’s Baraguru Ramachandrappa’s Shanti (Kannada, 2005), and long before that, we had Sunil Dutt’s Yaadein (1964), which was also about a husband grappling with memories.
But, here’s what’s new. Though we see only this one man, there are many others in the room. There are cops. There’s a psychologist. (In the older films, there was just that single person on screen.) So, while those older films only seemed stagey — it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to avoid a sense of theatricality with such a gimmick — Oththa Seruppu actually breaks the fourth wall and makes “us” Masilamani’s audience. The dynamic cinematography by Ramji gives us the POV of the people around Masilamani — so we become the cops, we become the psychologist. We seem to be interrogating Masilamani and listening to his memories and confessions. The title credits say that the film is “conceived and crafted” by Parthiban, not “written and directed by” — and, it feels right. There’s a lot of conceit and craft on display, and though the film is barely convincing, it’s very entertaining. I watched with both a smile (at the audacity on display) and a mild sigh (of a teacher faced with a brilliant student who can’t help showing off).
The theatricality is everywhere. The very location looks like a stage, with the barest of props and a very “visible” lighting scheme. When Masilamani is hit by a cop, his exaggerated reaction makes the cop exclaim, “Oru adi dhaan… Adhukku enna drama.” But it’s all drama, including Parthiban’s enjoyably oversized performance, which sometimes resembles that of a participant in an acting workshop. (There’s a touch of older plays such as Macbeth, when we hear about blood not coming off a murderer’s hands.) And, Resul Pookutty’s Expressionistic sound design gives the impression of a radio play — when Masilamani talks of a man being strangled, we hear the rasps of choking. C Sathya’s background score faithfully echoes the pitch, the ups and downs, of Masilamani’s monologues, but it’s practically redundant when Parthiban is not only conducting the film’s (emotional) orchestra, but also playing every single instrument.
And yet, there are things only cinema can do, only the camera can do. When the cops (or we) come close to Masilamani’s face, the camera goes right in, with a handheld feel. When a cop coughs, the camera shakes as though suffering from a coughing fit. (This kind of “look-ma” filmmaking is why I said I watched Oththa Seruppu with both a smile and a sigh.) There’s a puzzling shot from the inside of a pendulum clock, but elsewhere, the camera is completely in sync with a line (“Edha naan nambardhu”?) that mirrors our sentiments. Masilamani’s face is distorted through spectacle lenses. It is reflected in a small pool of spilled water. It is distanced from us through a video monitor. Every single choice screams: unreliable narrator.
By the end, the “did he do it?” surprises become less surprising, and the twist is something of an anticlimax. If you’re still with the story, it means you are like the people around Masilamani, enormously patient and indulgent. But, the film is always throwing things at you, there’s always something that catches you. The “Parthiban touches” are all over. What’s the name of the woman whose thoughts are swirling inside Masilaman’s head? Why, it’s the name of the fan swirling over his head. Oththa Seruppu has also got to be one of the wittiest “message movies” ever, for despite the cover of crime, the narrative is actually about haves and have-nots. The protagonist keeps talking about his poverty. Gandhi is brought up not as the father of the nation but as the face on currency notes. A van that causes an accident is one that contains cash to refill ATMs. And, what about the sound of the narrator’s name itself! Masila-money? Oh, Parthiban. I’m sighing. I’m also smiling.