Director: Krishna Marimuthu
Cast: Harish Kalyan, Tanya Hope and Vivekh
When I heard that Dharala Prabhu was a remake of Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor, I knew it wouldn't be an exact remake. "Tamil sensibilities" — at least as perceived by the industry — are different, after all. So I expected a fair amount of sanitising in this story of an ultra-virile footballer who becomes a sperm donor. (In other words, his new job, too, is about hitting the target, ova and ova again.) But the director, Krishna Marimuthu, springs a surprise. His film is at once an homage to the original and a quietly radical reworking of it. This isn't a case of "let's spray Harpic on the toilet humour and make the premise safe for our family audiences…" You know how, sometimes, we watch something and wonder, "What if…!" That's what Krishna has done. He has explored the old premise with a fresh pair of eyes, and with a very different sensibility.
Vivekh plays the fertility specialist, a Kannadasan fan named… Kannadasan. (Key songs of the great poet, like Manaivi amaivadhellam, pop up at key moments.) One of the biggest leaps of faith the narrative asks of us is to accept that moneyed couples would visit this rundown clinic for a super-expensive (and super-complicated) procedure — but like Annu Kapoor in the Hindi film, Vivekh is so endearingly hammy that the leap is easily made. Kannadasan finds Prabhu (Harish Kalyan), and they begin to make money, well, hand over fist.
This aspect is treated with utter dignity. There's no nudge-nudge scene of Prabhu in a room filled with porn, looking at the plastic container in his hand as Tom and Jerry sounds explode on the soundtrack. This is a masturbation movie you can take your grandmother to — everything is exquisitely subtle. Nidhi (Tanya Hope) is the love interest. The first meeting is a mini-symphony of gestures and reaction shots. (The superb editing is by Kripakaran Purushothaman.) You think the second meeting (in a theatre) or the third one (by the beach) would accelerate the rhythms of this romance. Instead, we get a cautious "getting to know you" graph.
There's no rom-com cutesiness. Neither is there a "single pasanga" friend, interrupting the proceedings with constant wisecracks about how Prabhu should handle this "figure". The relationship breathes. It feels so organic, it could be bottled and sold by 24 Mantra. And gradually, we see the reason behind this reserve. Nidhi comes with baggage, so she's wary about another relationship. Her character arc — shaped by the writers (the director, with Super Subu and Sudharshan Narasimhan), and aided by Tanya's measured performance — is wonderful. Nidhi slowly blossoms, and by the time she marries Prabhu, she turns into a firecracker on the dance floor.
Very deceptively, very casually, Dharala Prabhu addresses a number of issues without making them feel like "issues" (i.e. there are no lectures). The issue of the "virgin heroine". The issue of mothers wrestling with a career. The issue of a middle-class guy and an upper-class girl. The issue of surrogacy. The small shame that (still) comes with the fact that you have to rely on another man to have a child. Or — in one of the most brilliant insights — how adoption can feel from a female perspective. A woman usually has 10 months to "prepare" herself for motherhood. Isn't it natural then, to feel some fear when you're walking into an adoption agency, where a "readymade" child awaits you?
Even the central issue is treated with lightness. If, for some reason, your wife can't cook one day, you order in food, right? Using a sperm donor is not very different. If these throwaway bits feel revolutionary, it's because Tamil cinema usually makes such a big deal about them. (The brilliantly textured background score doesn't make a big deal, either.) When a man admits that his male ego prevented him from using a sperm donor, or when even a relatively open-minded single mother (Anupama Kumar) expresses reservations about adoption, we see how much thought and sensitivity have gone into the writing. Like in life, one decision results in endless ramifications.
Nothing is over-emphasised, whether it's a "cool" grandmother (Sachu) or a lesbian couple or the discreet zooms of cinematographer SK Selvakumar. This is not a film that shouts from the rooftops about its technique or that it's breaking taboos. It internalises its issues, and even the "twists" are a natural offshoot of the premise. The only really off scene is when Prabhu's and Nidhi's families begin to bicker about the wedding arrangements — for a couple of minutes, there is a stale sit-com feel — otherwise, even the out-there contrivances (involving a cop, or the too-easy way a child adjusts to a new household) is handled with conviction and feeling.
Perhaps the only real reservation I had was the unvarying tonality. I loved the film's subtlety, but when every character and development comes with a hushed "classiness", it begins to feel like being in a five-star spa resounding gently with Far Eastern music. (And maybe some of the characters, like the girl with a crush on Prabhu, could have been axed to bring down the running time.) But this is a very small complaint in such a well-thought out and well-made film. I'm thinking about the spectacularly edited stretch that echoes an earlier scene on a beach, with a wandering child and a father whose attention is distracted by a phone call. While the entire sequence is superb, it soars to a totally different plane when an element of spirituality and destiny creeps in.
And what about Prabhu? This is Harish Kalyan's best outing after Pyaar Prema Kaadhal. In that film, though, his role was overshadowed by that of the heroine. Here, he finally gets to shine. Like the rest of Dharala Prabhu, nothing about this character (or the actor's performance) is overdone. Prabhu feels refreshingly real — someone thought through as a person, from the inside, and not as someone who's there simply to drive a plot along. Take the scene where he realises that an outing with Nidhi is not the "date" he imagined it to be. His face falls for an instant, just an instant, but he's happy that she feels safe with him. His super sperm count is just a macho statistic. A scene like this is what really makes him a man.