Director: Karthik Seenivasan
Cast: Gayathrie, Vivek Prasanna, Abarnathi, Charlie, Dheena
How far will you go for money? This is the question that writer-director Karthik Seenivasan asks the Vinayagam family and its viewers. Even if the answer might take on an existential tone for many of us, the fraying family strapped for cash in Udanpaal has an answer readily on them. They will pry, push and sometimes claw their way to a shot at money, even if it means their morality is on the line.
Like most gritty independent films we see today, Udanpaal too chooses to place its focus on a delightfully dysfunctional family— and an equally dilapidated house that they call home. The matchbox house— which gets a gorgeous montage in the title credits— is as big a part of the Vinayagam family as its residents. And a testament to that is how the film plays out almost entirely in the house.
Udanpaal begins with Kanmani (Gayathrie) and her husband Murali landing up at her father’s house at an ungodly hour. Tension runs high as the joint family convenes for a mission. Kanmani might have come back home for her mother’s fifth death anniversary, but the real reason behind her arrival is something a tad more sinister. Kanmani and her brother Parama (Linga) want to grovel to their father (a refreshing VTM Charlie) to sell their house to make quick money. And obviously enough the father is enraged and a tussle for property begins. But before you assume that you are in for a Visu film (the sentimental director’s filmography gets a fun hat tip in the film), Karthik changes the film’s gears and makes you think of Homi Adajania’s Being Cyrus (2005) instead. He refrains from histrionics and splashes Udanpaal with some morbid comedy. What if a freak accident lets the siblings believe that they are entitled for some compensatory cash?
Psychological and physical ruin are running themes in Udanpaal, a concept that Karthik expertly weaves into his writing. This is apparent right from the opening shot, where we see blue paint on the walls of the house peel into disintegration. The sofa is propped up by small stones and the chipped clock is filled in with chalk piece marks masquerading as numbers on the wall. And what’s more, Murali causes ruin of the only functioning furniture in the house – the cot. The physicality of the house is nothing but a reflection of the bonds that its residents share.
Parama, who runs a washed-up CD store once owned by his father, has now resorted to selling soft porn to the elderly in the neighbourhood. Kanmani, on the other hand is a makeup artist (ironically enough with Gayathrie’s past with makeup) who needs some fast cash. And Prema, the matriarch of the house and Parama’s partner, is left with the responsibility of caring for the father-in-law and his ailing sister with dementia. All love is lost between the bitter Vinayagams, except for the bond that Parama’s son shares with his grandpa.
Madhan Christopher’s camera flails beautifully in and out of the house’s ruins, pulling us into the world as a fly on the wall. Udanpaal is rich with symbolisms. For one, it begins with a death and ends with one. Its mise-en-scene is spectacular — be it the recurrent imagery of a tea glass or a kid’s artwork, every article in Udanpaal has its place.
The film is bookmarked with some great performances too. Prema and Kanmani never have a nice thing to say about each other, but the actresses playing them (Abarnathi and Gayathrie) riff off each other with zing. Kaithi actor Dheena too plays a memorable cameo as a biryani master (the irony is not lost on us here as well). While the film is at its best when it satirises family greed, it struggles to do the same with its emotional scenes. Since we don’t get to travel long enough with its characters, we hardly relate to their misty-eyed moments. When Charlie shocks the family with an appearance at one point, Gayathrie says, “Ennaku azhardha sirikardhane theiyale/ I don’t know if I should cry or laugh.” This perhaps seems to be the problem that the film’s writing wrestles with in the end. We would have liked the film to stick with the laughs.