In House Owner, writer-director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan continues her quest to tell strong (and strongly written) stories about women. In Aarohanam, it was a lower-middle-class vegetable vendor with bipolar disorder. In Ammani, it was a retirement-age worker at a government hospital. Now, we have middle-aged Radha (Sriranjani), who cares for a husband (Vasudevan, played by 'Aadulakam' Kishore) with Alzheimer's. In the only showy shot in the film, he's unable to recognise himself in the mirror. "Who are you?" he barks, with all the authority you'd expect from a retired army man. How, then, could he be expected to remember his wife? She tends to him as though taking care of a particularly difficult child. A simple instruction like "Go take a bath" turns into an endless series of pleadings, and if the repetition is numbing to us (which is the desired effect), you can only imagine what it's like for Radha, who has to do this day in, day out.
The film's title made me think of something along the lines of To Let, but the story revolves around the 2015 Chennai floods. The titles, underscored by a soothing Ghibran number, play over the many rituals of an Iyer wedding – we see Radha and Vasudevan getting married. (The younger versions of the couple are played by 'Pasanga' Kishore and Lovelyn Chandrasekhar.) The film, too, is a chronicle of the many rituals that make up a long-lasting marriage, the many small moments that we recognise as domesticity. Outside the older Radha's home, in 2015, a catastrophe is in the making. Inside, it's about playing carrom and preparing a meal and getting out battery-operated lights when the power goes off.
It takes a while for House Owner to find its footing. The Brahminical lingo doesn't sit easily with some of the actors, and some of the conversations come off as stagey and stilted. And the narrative's cross-cutting design – alternating between the older and younger versions of Radha and Vasudevan – isn't instantly obvious. At first, I wondered how the past was contributing to the present, other than simply contrasting a couple at the peak of their youth and vigour with a couple whose lives are winding down. But slowly, it becomes clear that this is exactly the point. The conceit is superb. Instead of making us wallow in misery with the present-day Radha and Vasudevan (and easily earning our sympathies), the director makes us reflect on their current plight through moments from the past. When the younger Vasudevan, who has his whole life ahead of him, jokingly declares, "Naan endrendrum pathinaaru," (I am sixteen forever), my heart broke at the thought that in a few decades, he won't even be able to tie his shoelaces.
Given his background, the younger Vasudevan is as unorthodox as they come. He eats chicken. He coaxes his shy, young bride to dance with him in a gathering of friends. He gives his widowed grandmother a flower. He tells Radha, "Nee neeyave iru." (Just be yourself.) But now, older, he yells at Radha to remember her place. An element of patriarchy has somehow crept in (or maybe it was always in him, and now that his memory and conscious thinking are gone, all that remains is the atavistic shell of his forefathers). Earlier, Radha was the child. Now, the roles are reversed. In one of the rare on-the-nose moments, the song Kannan oru kaikuzhandhai plays on the radio, and there are some on-the-nose editing transitions, but the overall effect is enormously affecting.
Cinematographer Krishna Sekhar TS colours the younger couple's timeline like a luminous Ravi Varma oil painting, and when we cut to the older couple, the lighting is depressingly natural, even drab – because nostalgia is always more vivid in the mind, and also because time has a way of eroding life. Consider how proud the younger Vasudevan is about his 2.5-grounds independent house in Madras, the very same house that we fear will turn into a death trap in 2015. House Owner unfolds like an emotional suspense thriller, where the audience knows what the characters don't know, and we want to keep saying, "Look out!" "Look out! The wife you love so much will one day turn into a stranger you will push out of your bed." "Look out! The water you are frolicking in, in this pond, will one day turn anything but playful when it begins to seep into your house."
Lakshmy Ramakrishnan takes us right into the lives of her characters. We don't need to see Vasudevan serving in the army. (These fleeting portions suffer due to what appear to be budgetary constraints.) We just need to see him launch into a Hindi song (Abhi na jaao chhodkar, which is about the sweet ache of parting from your lover). We just need to see the older Radha's casual use of Hindi, or the mojri-like footwear in their home – and we know these are people that have been all over India. The only time I winced was at the melodrama around a snake (the younger Radha is terrified when she thinks she's encountered one, and a snake crawls into the older couple's house during the floods) – but this creature just remains curled up in a corner, like another memory from the past.
House Owner may be the most intimate movie ever made about a calamity. The scenes from the past teem with relatives and friends and colleagues. In the present, everyone's reduced to a voice on the phone or a voice outside the window. The only people we see are Radha and Vasudevan – and this adds to the claustrophobia. Vasudevan, of course, is locked up inside his own mind. Radha is locked up, too – chained to her husband. All the actors do solid work, but Sriranjani is remarkable as one of those uncomplaining women who have made peace with their lot, a repository of love and patience and boundless fatigue. The film is really an ode to love, and a reminder to cherish what we have when we have it. The younger Vasudevan, away on duty, says, "If I come back, each and every minute is a gift." It really is, isn't it?