Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Tanya S Ravichandran, K Renuka, Karunakaran, Nirmal Palazhi, Gouri G. Kishan
Director: Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi
Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi's Paper Rocket tucks in a few surprises up its sleeve. Don't be fooled by its ingenuous title. While at the center of the seven-episode series is a bucket-list buddy adventure, the series packs in a thoughtful, and for the most part, politically-correct discourse on depression, death, and disability.
As early as the first episode, all eyes are on Jeeva, a 20-something mergers and acquisitions overachiever played by Kalidas Jayaram, and understandably so. His life in Chennai and his eye-watering apartment by the sea in ECR run like clockwork. And ironically enough, in a series that props up so much on the idea of time itself, Jeeva has no time for anyone else but work. He even steals a Rolex watch from his doting single father the last time he visited him at Kanyakumari (the series is often crammed with lovely allegories of time). But when his dad suddenly passes on, grief overtakes Jeeva's world, and suddenly he finds himself with all the time in the world. But as one door closes, another door opens. And in Jeeva's case, it is therapy.
New characters soon enter Jeeva's life in the form of a therapy group. Gouri Kishan plays Charu, a former swimmer and teenager full of life in a wheelchair (no points for representation there). A superb K Renuka is breast cancer survivor Valliamma; Karunakaran is Tiger, a Nietzche-loving philosophist suffering from chronic depression; Tanya Ravichandran is Elakya, a recluse with anger issues, and Nirmal Palazhi is Unni, a terminal patient with a "ticking time bomb" for a brain, in his own words. And thus follows a Rob Reiner-esque bucket list drama, wherein these six strangers embark on a trip to tick off their wishlist.
And thankfully for the list, the series takes us through the gorgeous hinterlands of Tirunelveli, Marthandam, Karaikudi, and Megamalai with artful camerawork. Jeeva, who unwittingly takes charge of the trip (not without consent forms, of course), slowly takes in their problems. If Valliamma wants to relive fond memories with her dead husband in her ancestral property, Charu wants to take a dip in the Thamirabarani river with her grandad (played by an effortless GM Kumar).
But not all such stories work, with Tiger's arc being the weakest of them all. But to the maker's defense, this is tricky territory. In a series that promises not to judge anyone for their mental state, a suicidal Tiger is obsessed with death. Oppression from a religious mom and chronic depression from loneliness turns Tiger on an existential journey. What is the purpose of a life where people fight each other over their religion and caste, he asks in a scene. Unfortunately, the writing of the show– which is otherwise strengthened by sharp dialogues – lacks the weight to justify such lines. So, when Tiger and Elakya butt heads for evoking a few laughs pegged to his suicidal thoughts, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Kalidas steers and steals the show quite dexterously in Paper Rocket, and so does Jeeva. But that is not always a good thing in a series that places importance on self-realization. And so Jeeva becomes a classic case of the savior complex. He has a thoughtful line or two to make people's problems vanish into thin air, quite successfully. So much so that even the psychotherapist that brought the gang of misfits together, looks at him as the better fixer-upper.
But one of the best arcs in the show is also in its most surprising one – Nirmal Palazhi's Unni sets off to Madhavaram to have some casual tea with his childhood sweetheart. But there is just one problem–she is married to a hunky dude who lifts big weights at his doorway for leisure. This portion warms the heart with stories of forgotten romances, childhood friendships, and delicately written men.
The show is also at its best when it tries to unpack grief in different forms. Look out for the first episode when Valliamma bursts out into laughter when a visibly uncomfortable Jeeva learns about a death in the group. The show doesn't put grief into boxes. Instead, it gently reminds us that it is an animal that takes different forms in different people.