Director: Ganesh K Babu
Cast: Kavin, Aparna Das, Harish K, Aishwariyaa Bhaskaran, Bhagyaraj
Ganesh Babu’s Dada has all the ingredients of a templated family drama, one that is usually and carefully choreographed to evoke tears and sentiment — an unplanned pregnancy that shatters families, a bittersweet parting and the bond between a father and a son. But what Ganesh does with these tropes – notoriously known for its melodramatic tendencies – is turn it into a meaningful yet understated coming of age story of a young father.
And Ganesh is very clear with how he wants to tell this story as early as his film’s first shot. We see a couple sprawled on bed, the woman (Sindhu played by Aparna Das), gently resting her head on her partner’s chest with a profound smile. She lets out a tear, expressing a feeling of fulfilment in her romance. And her boyfriend Manikandan (Kavin) lets out a sigh – not because she’s crying, but because he literally can’t (we get to hear a cute story about how he didn’t even cry as an infant). He goes on to comfort her with a line right out of the nice boyfriends’ handbook — “I’ll make sure that you never shed a tear again,” he says. And just when you lean into your seat to get ready for a cutesy romance montage, the screen cuts to a shot of Sindhu weeping. But this time the tears aren’t as happy. After all, they have an unplanned pregnancy on their hands.
Dada finds its own such ways to surprise us, leaving behind the stylised touches that often accompany the genre. Take Manikandan and Sindhu’s romance for instance. Theirs is a love that unfolds with essentially no backstory. We are told that they are caught in the throes of wild, young love, and this is made instantly believable by the lived-in and comfortable language of Kavin and Aparna’s chemistry. The couple eventually moves out of their houses and burns bridges with their families, and end up finding comfort in friends. The friends-like-family concept is effortlessly captured in vignettes of conversations between Mani and Amit (a superb Harish K), who go from being infantile men-children who giggle and squirm over diaper changes to sensitive best friends who say ‘I love you’ to each other without any shame.
Almost every character that populates the universe of Dada has agency and a purpose. Right from the auto driver who gives a disapproving look to a father’s despicable act to VTV Ganesh’s cameo, who ends up pushing the film’s playful take on destiny — the writing is detailed and meaningful.
But the beating heart of the script is Mani’s voyage into fatherhood, and in turn manhood. Mani isn’t a reckless teenager who sprints at the mention of pregnancy. He is a happy but nervous man in love, who isn’t ready to face such a primal fear so early in life. So, when Mani and Sindhu part ways over an ugly spat, Sindhu does the unthinkable and Mani suddenly finds himself to be a character straight out of a single dad drama. Children and their repartee with adults make for adorable placeholders in films. But this track also often tends to become worn out in films, which inevitably make the kid annoyingly oversmart and mouthy. The bond that Mani shares with his baby boy Aditya, however, is a realistic yet beautiful representation, warts and all (watch out for the scene when he sheepishly speaks about the mother shaped elephant in the room with his dad). “Do you want to know who your mom is,” Mani asks the child, to which he slips under the sheet, deciding to sleep instead of having to face the difficult conversation.
A lot of things are left unsaid in Dada, and it’s a refreshing quality for a film that deals with motherly negligence. Filmmaker Ganesh is careful never to glorify motherhood, nor forcefully shame women who live with the difficult decisions they have made. It instead puts the onus on men, giving them the diapers and ladles to care and cook for their children.