Director: Lenin Bharathi
Cast: Antony Pangu Gayathri, Aaru Bala, Thamarai
Most films, in the early portions, build up to a hero-introduction shot. Merku Thodarchi Malai (Western Ghats) builds up to a landscape-introduction shot. At first, we get long stretches of people doing the most mundane things. Waking up. Bathing. Idle chatter while drinking tea. We haven't really been introduced to any of them, so they remain as anonymous as the mostly new, mostly local cast. The darkness doesn't help. Faces keep merging into each other, with no singling-out dimension. But after a while, it begins to dawn. Ilayaraja — so far silent — slips in an understated flute theme, and Theni Easwar's camera begins the first of its many zoom-outs. The stage is set for a big reveal, and… we see the mountains of the Western Ghats, along the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, sharply delineated in a way no human, so far, has been. This is as much a story of the place as the people.
Merku Thodarchi Malai, written and directed by Lenin Bharathi (he wrote the story on which Susendhiran's Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer was based), is filled with painterly shots — say, a blacked-out screen that's lit up when a door opens and light floods in. But the film's meaning rests in the repeated wide shots. In the first half, we watch daily-wage labourers at a plantation hoist sacks filled with cardamom on their backs and begin to walk downhill. They keep walking. The camera keeps pulling back. At some point, we hear voices, but the men are like ants in a maze, identifiable only by the sacks they carry. (This shot finds a heart-rending echo at the end.) Nearby, the Ghats stand silently, as they always have, as they always will. The song that emerges from a tea stall in the area is Ondru serntha anbu maaruma, from Makkalai Petra Maharaasi (1957). It doesn't sound old. There's a timelessness about this place. It could be 1957.
There's something to be said for casting people from the region, but with many characters, you wish for a little more variation, a little less stiffness in front of the camera
Time is a major component of Lenin Bharathi's screenplay. When nothing seems to be happening — at least nothing of consequence — time crawls. But when the milestones of a life unfold — like marriage, and the birth of a child — it's all compressed into a song. The narrative, thus, gets demarcated into two distinct tracks: the documentary-like (i.e. the timeless, that which has been happening for generations), and the drama (the timebound, that which is contained in a lifespan). The former is certainly the more interesting. For instance: How do these people transport cash? By wrapping the notes in towels that are then tied around the waist. We even get a demonstration of how a sack is filled with cardamom, with a waterproof casing, and tied down with flaps. The "did you know?" aspects of Merku Thodarchi Malai are a kind of anthropological record, the cinematic equivalent of painstakingly put-together non-fiction. Instead of plot, we get little stories — about tree-worship, about elephants — that add up to a big picture about the region and its inhabitants, the landless labour classes to whom the film is dedicated.
But when the plot kicks in, the film falters. From the factual, we turn to the fictional, which means we need a face — a protagonist — to emerge from this mass of people. That's Rangasamy (Antony), a meek man who is both nice and naive. Like everyone else, he wants his own patch of land. Rangasamy is perfectly fine as a face in the crowd, but he's not enough of a character to hold a story, and the amateur acting doesn't help. There's something to be said for casting people from the region, but with many characters, you wish for a little more variation, a little less stiffness in front of the camera. This part of the narrative — with overblown, underlining-the-tragedy songs like Andharathil — is overwrought. The higher pitch isn't, by itself, a problem, but it keeps clashing with the life-and-times track of the film. The tug of war is sometimes unsettling, especially when union leaders and murders kick in.
I could have lived without the solo violin underlining a sad moment, but we get the feeling of the passage of a way of life
But in the parts that work (like the reason Rangasamy ties his dhoti on a tree), Merku Thodarchi Malai is immensely moving. In one of the expanded-time segments, we see Rangasamy's uphill climb up to the plantation. Names of places (Kombai, Thevaram) keep appearing in a corner of the screen, like how a Hollywood adventure would say "Berlin" and "Morocco." It's like a Virtual Reality trek. From our seats, we participate in a long journey, where there are no water stops, where animal traps abound, where people from far-flung communities hail each other like neighbours. The colourful characters, like the old man who insists he has the strength to carry a sack load all by himself, come with shades of poignancy. I could have lived without the solo violin underlining a sad moment, but we get the feeling of the passage of a way of life. Where men used to lift weights, some people use donkeys. Maybe even this will go away with more "modernisation," especially when the children start going to school, as Rangasamy's son does.
Lenin Bharathi doesn't look down on progress, and he doesn't judge. He leaves that to us. Is it a tragedy when a labourer gets a job as a watchman and leaves his old life behind, sitting all day on a stool instead of taking long treks through Nature? It's still a job, isn't it? But the camera move suggests a sense of pathos — perhaps Lenin Bharathi is letting his camera talk, making it say things he doesn't overtly want to say. When a man named Logu progresses from being a seller of seeds and fertiliser to the owner of several companies, the camera lingers (for many, many beats) on the back of a van, which bears the stickers of those companies. Is Logu evil? Is he a ruthless capitalist? Has he usurped lands from the unsuspecting people around, or is he just claiming what they owe him for years' worth of seeds and fertiliser that they haven't yet paid for? I kept staring at the sticker at the back of the van.