pDirector: P Virumandi
I'll begin with a scene with a government official in Ramanathapuram. A young woman has discovered that her Dubai-employed husband has died. (He was one of the numerous anonymous Indians who worked in the numerous anonymous jobs there.) She wants the body flown back, to see him one last time and also to lay him to rest in the land he loved so much. But first, she needs to prove she's the legal wife — and she has no proof. The marriage took place in a temple, and there's not even a photograph to prove it happened. So she goes to the government official, because she wants some kind of marriage certificate. The government official asks for the relevant documents. When she says she has none, my mind — conditioned by years of Tamil-cinema training — conjured up what would come next. The man's going to ask for a bribe. Or worse, he's going to ask for her. But he simply shrugs and turns her away. What he says makes sense. What if another woman turned up another day and claimed that she was the wife?
At the heart of Ka Pae Ranasingam is an almost dharmic question: What is our duty towards other people, especially those in dire need? Seen one way, this government official did his job exactly the way the government has instructed him to do it. But did he do his job as a human being? Could he not have gone the extra distance and see how else he could have helped this woman? Maybe he could have called someone and explained this situation and said: My hands are tied, but do you know what this woman can do? Because if each one of us does our "job" thinking only about what it requires of us, following rules and regulations, fearing — rightly — that we will be punished by those above us (who are only doing their job, after all) if we overstep our limits, then how do we help people who fall in a no-man's land that's under nobody's purview? Put differently, if we all say "It's not my problem", then how do we find solutions?
The film is a Roja-ish Satyavan/Savitri story, and it's an impressive debut for writer-director P Virumaandi. It's about Ariyanachi (Aishwarya Rajesh), who is trapped in a very difficult — and very emotional — situation. She keeps going to people because she needs help. She keeps hearing "It's not my problem", and she refuses to give up. She goes to a higher authority, and when he says "It's not my problem", she goes to an even higher authority. Ka Pae Ranasingam runs nearly three hours, and it earns that indulgence. Instead of wasting time on songs and laughs to "lighten" its themes, and instead of offering simple-minded solutions and heroic (or heroine-ic) lectures to fix these issues, it submerges us in a quicksand of systemic rot. We feel — almost physically — not just every step of Ariyanachi's journey, but also the many months it takes her to find a solution. And even so, the last stretch is a heart-breaker.
Most writer-directors try and streamline their story, so there is one clear issue, one clear hero (or heroine), one clear villain. There's no doubt who the hero/heroine is in Virumaandi's vision (a marvellously in-form Vijay Sethupathi is Ranasingam). But who's the villain, and what's the issue? Is it the evil MNC that profits from cheap labour, or the local power company that drains water from these already arid lands? Is it the villagers' insistence on cultivating karuvelam plants that suck up water, or a trans-national bureaucratic process that allows Sridevi's body to be brought back in 72 hours, from Dubai, while the corpses of Indian workers remain in freezing units, waiting for countless red tapes to be cleared? Is it the body of elected officials that's unapproachable by the very people that elect them, or the family that distances itself from the daughter-in-law in order to get the dead son's insurance money?
If these various issues and villains don't seem "connected", it's because they aren't. Ka Pae Ranasingam isn't a simple cause-and-effect movie. It's a causes-and-effects movie. Commoners aren't all good. Politicians aren't all bad. A great many things happen around us, and the results cannot be easily contained or even explained. Appropriately, several frames are packed with people. (The cinematographer is NK Ekambaram.) My favourite such framing is a scene around the local water source, where women gather with plastic buckets. So much is told, here: that it's very late at night, that the water in the taps comes in the thinnest of trickles, that these women still manage to make light of the situation with their teasing banter, and that all this affects Ariyanachi. Almost every stretch is a similar mix of the political and the personal.
The film isn't perfect. It could have used more polish — not necessarily in the making, but in the writing, the way the scenes are rounded off or the way some characters are introduced. But after a very long time, I had the satisfaction of watching a movie that was about something and yet not in a hurry to offer closure. Ka Pae Ranasingam understands that these problems are too complex for a hero (or a heroine) to solve and send us home with a smile, with a heart happy that at least in the movies some things can be fixed. Virumaandi wants to send us home with Ariyanachi's despair, which, in turn, translates into the despair of thousands of migrant workers and their families, which, in turn, reminds us of how microscopic we citizens are in the eyes of our rulers, whether political (the government) or economic (the capitalists who make coolies of us).
Ka Pae Ranasingam could be seen as Vijay Sethupathi's atonement for Sangathamizhan, which was exactly the kind of film this one isn't, with an easy villain (a copper corporation) and an easy issue (pollution) and with "mass" aspirations. Here, Ranasingam is a do-gooder, but he slowly realises that do-goodism is hard to instil in people who have (and fear for their) jobs. And how refreshing it is to see a leading man choosing his family over the community, the personal over the political! Of course, he does get a couple of action scenes. The first one is beautifully shot and beautifully choreographed. Instead of going wide and showing us henchmen somersaulting in slo-mo, the camera sticks to the hero as he keeps punching bad guys out of the frame. And even if it's something of a stretch, both these action scenes do find some resonance with the story's themes. The first one is set around the family of a migrant labourer. The second is set around the issue of water, and it's also set in the midst of men waiting in line to be… migrant labourers.
Even the heavy-handed scenes largely work because there is such a lived-in sense of place and time. Shanmugam Muthusamy's dialogues play a major part: "Kudukaatha saamy-ya vida kudukkara pei evvalavo mael," or "Nallavano kettavano, sethaa sondha oorula saaganum." As do the actors. Rangaraj Pandey is superb as the district Collector. He makes us feel what it must be like to constantly be at the receiving end of a thousand complaints. He's as human a political figure as I've seen in the movies, especially our movies. Watch him deflect a fearful question about the fishermen's issue. There's no "how dare you ask me this"! There's no "don't concern yourself with things that aren't about you"! There's just the calm resignation of a man who knows that no answer he gives is going to make anyone happy.
Aishwarya Rajesh, after Kanaa, gets a role that gives her the gamut. There's enormous charm in Ariyanachi's sparring with Ranasingam, without any "cutesiness". Virumaandi knows that it's crucial we care about this couple, and he writes beautiful scenes for them, with sharp segues: like the "sound cut" from clapping hands to wails, or the visual cut from Ariyanachi lying on the floor during her wedding night to her being found in the same position in the present day. Even the wedding scene is a marriage of the personal and the political: it takes place as a near-curfew (Section 144) is implemented in the village. Water flows around this relationship. When he's not do-gooding, Ranasingam is a water diviner. Drought is a perennial problem; it's why Ariyanachi meets Ranasingam. And a superb moment is staged with a half-rain, which you'll have to see to understand.
Water is also the anchor for the heavier moments. A major scene occurs at a newly constructed dam, and when Ariyanachi — in Chennai — sees water going waste, she rushes to fix the leak, leaving her toddler on the roadside. This is not a cheap "child in danger" moment to manipulate us. It's a reminder of what water means to this woman — and we think back to her introduction scene, where she was seen walking with pots to fetch water. There are parts where we see an Aishwarya Rajesh we haven't seen since Kaaka Muttai. I'm talking about the scene where she panics at the sound of an ambulance and slowly sinks to the ground. Her eyes are filled with such sadness, such anguish. Aishwarya may feel short-changed by an industry that keeps running after fair-skinned women (she gamely takes a "colour kammi" line, here), but she's one of the very few heroines doing work that will be remembered.