Director: Halitha Shameem
Cast: Madhumathi, Manikandan, Samuthirakani
In a film culture that has traditionally glorified the "amma sentiment", it's nice to hear the occasional nod to the other parent. Halitha Shameem's Aelay is an "appa sentiment" story, even if what we sense — at first, from Parthi (Manikandan) — is an utter lack of sentiment for his appa. The old man, Muthukutti (Samuthirakani), has died. The Chennai-based Parthi heads back to his village for the last rites, in a bus where a loud movie played all night and a passenger snored all night. Upon reaching his destination, Parthi seems more upset about his lack of sleep than his father having passed on. And we seem to be set for an angsty drama about parents and resentful children, about a man who sold "kuchi ice" for a living and made the neighbourhood kids happy but could not transfer some of that happiness to his own kids.
But knowing Halitha, we also know it's not going to be just that angsty drama. She may be the best vignette-maker in Tamil cinema today. As she proved so memorably in Poovarasam Peepee and especially Sillu Karupatti, she has a way of taking us so deep into a place that the writing practically becomes an act of anthropology. You don't just see the place, you discover it — and I think this comes from research. We get the feeling that Halitha has a loose "plot" in mind, but before fleshing it out she does what a good investigative journalist does. She returns with so many incidental details that these bits of flavour become their own reason for watching the movie.
We have seen many oppari singers in the movies, but never one who's rushing between appointments (the woman could use a secretary!) and has to be told who this dead man is. The way she transforms this freshly gathered information into a lament that feels as though she knew this man all her life made me laugh out loud. The unhurried pre-intermission portions are wonderful, and exactly what we expect from a "Halitha Shameem movie". There's some clunky staging and the large cast doesn't always hit the mark. (Samuthirakani and Manikandan are just fine, though, as is Kailashnath C, the boy who plays the young Parthi.) But the warmth and humour in the vignettes are irresistible: from the way a gold tooth is lost to an argument with a "fat woman" in a bus, from "child leasing" to a horrific act of chick-icide (that somehow makes you grin).
Muthukutti is seen in flashbacks. He is, as they say, quite a character, and Halitha manages a very impressive balancing act: she makes us see the man for the casually irresponsible rogue that he is and somehow like him, even as we feel for Parthi and his sister. We see how it's easier, sometimes, to be a better man around other people's children than around your own. And all this comes with a beautifully curated sight-and-sound tour of the village. After about an hour, I felt that the plot would be one about Parthi finally making his peace with his father. I mean, one hardly expects a father in such a story to turn out to be a villain, right?
But instead, we get two other villains (actual characters), and a third one in the form of a runaway screenplay. It's one thing for a leisurely narrative to want to pick up speed. But here, we go from zero to 600 kmph in what seems like a 10-minute stretch. The vignette-based approach is tossed out, as plot point after plot point kicks in — the second half becomes completely unwieldy, and also (disappointingly) shrill. When a film is melodramatic from start to finish, the high pitch becomes the default tone. But here, you get the feeling everyone (including the composer, Aruldev, with his "quirky" score) has begun to scream.
Even the once-charming romance (Madhumathi Padmanathan plays Naachiya, Parthi's girlfriend) becomes a dull cliché, the kind where a silly misunderstanding is allowed to fester until the audience turns sore. The way Naachiya learns about a crucial incident seems to have been written by another writer altogether, someone brought in from Mega Serial Land. And more than disappointment, I was left with puzzlement. In Sillu Karupatti, Halitha served up heart-warming content without an iota of excessive sentimentality. Is the overplotting (and overlength) a deliberate attempt to try something else and not be "trapped" in a formula? Because, even with its issues, the film is always watchable. There's always something fresh and interesting and "quirky" enough to match the score, like the father and son giving up a chase while halfway up a tree. But you wish Halitha had leaned one way and stayed that course. Aelay wants to be Poovarasam Peepee with the added tonality of a Pandiraj drama, and I'm not sure anyone is capable of pulling that off.