Before the pandemic, an anthology film, that too one in Tamil, was a rarity akin to a Gautham Vasudev Menon film that's completed and released on time. Ever since, we've seen the release of one every two months or so, across OTT platforms. By now, even the untrained eye is able to form patterns to understand the 'order' of these films. Both Putham Pudhu Kaalai and Paava Kadhaigal sandwiched the two most ordinary shorts in between the strongest ones. You start the film upbeat, sit through two passable films and end on a high, with arguably the best of the lot ending the anthology. The same thought process seems to have been applied in the case of Kutty Story as well, where you enter and leave the film with kutty pleasures, only to later remember entire swathes of dullness that dominated most of the running time.
Among these swathes, the largest seems to be director Vijay's Avanum Naanum, which is his second (after the Sai Pallavi-starrer Diya) to take an unabashedly pro-life stand. In this case, the point is made using the example of a much younger couple who just do not seem to know any better. Leave aside the obvious lack of nuance, this is a film where Preeti (Megha Akash) realises that she might be pregnant only when her roommate points out that her stash of sanitary napkins has remained untouched for months. It's impossible to take this lead couple seriously, because you sense a condescension even in the way the writer-director looks at them. They don't come across as two innocent people who might have made an error of judgement. Instead, they behave like nameless/faceless people who are only alive as cautionary tales parents use to scare teenagers into abstinence. Look past the contrived ending, and this is the film weakest to place into the anthology's overall theme of love.
Slightly more alive than them are the two animated leads in Venkat Prabhu's Logam, basically an epistolary love story (like Kadhal Kottai, the short keeps reminding us) that happens within the virtual gaming universe of Logam. Reminding one of the two worlds of Spike Jonze's Her and the Black Mirror episode Striking Vipers, the romance keeps live action to the minimum as we witness two players (Adam and Eve) navigating the levels of Logam in search of success and companionship. It asks a lot of the same questions we've seen in dramas that places a penpal-like relationship at the centre. Is it still love if you haven't seen the other person? Is falling in love with a virtual avatar any lesser than real love? And lastly, why are female avatars in such games always so well-endowed, even when women get to create these avatars for themselves?
But among these very pertinent questions, the short never takes the trouble to go anywhere beyond the initial novelty of seeing a Tamil film attempting such a cool idea. On paper, it's impressive to think that we'd be rooting for a virtual love story on Valentine's Day, but other than exchanging love letters in this gaming universe, there's nothing the film does afresh. The ending remains weak and the ambition dries up quickly after we get a cool glimpse of what a Tamil hero 'mass moment' would look like in the context of a video game.
Yet, it's only with the other shorts, directed by Nalan Kumarasamy and Gautham Vasudev Menon, that we get films where the concept of love is placed at challenging, fascinating junctures. In Nalan's Aadal Paadal, we get a male character who first corrects his male friend for using feminine words like 'share' while they discuss their problems. In his words, the idea of using words like sharing or communicating is perhaps unmanly and from this unique point, we segue into a situation that discusses gender politics within the confines of not just the lockdown, but also the unwritten rules of adultery.
The writing here, for the most part, is genius. In such a story, it's obvious that the stakes are heightened by introducing us to the daughter of the married couple in question. But other than Nalan Kumarasamy, you can't imagine a single writer who'd choose to write a story about adultery set during Covid times, and also place the man's father-in-law right in the middle of all the awkwardness.
This father-in-law hardly gets a dialogue, neither does he get involved in the central issue, but it's his character that makes this such a unique 'indoorsy' short. Of course, the film deals with the concept of a role reversal within the context of adultery, but it's equally a commentary on what happens to privacy during the lockdown. And suddenly, intense scenes need to be set inside the bathroom and on the terrace. The man has to pump iron alone in his bedroom when he's sad, while the couple end up dancing together near the gate, outside their garage.
Why are women conditioned to forgive when men wander away from a marriage, and why is the reaction so different when men find themselves in the same situation? Set within this conflict, Nalan Kumarasamy shows us Vijay Sethupathi like we've never seen him before. Though we've seen him do evil and dark shades of grey, in Aadal Paadal we see a shady side to him that's more controlled than the easygoing charmer we're used to seeing. He reflects the millions of ego-bruised men who have different rules for themselves and their partners. Along with some wacky music by first-timer Edwin Louis Viswanath, we get a Lockdown film that places people in situations they can't escape from, both literally as well as metaphorically.
Finally, it's the messiah of messy relationships who ends up giving us the most heartfelt of shorts in Kutty Story. Gautham Menon once again writes a plot that places a 'mellisaana kodu' as the central conflict, but over here, it's not between right and wrong as he'd explored in Yennai Arindhaal. In Edhirpaaradha Mutham (the unexpected kiss), he's obsessed with an even finer line that separates love from friendship. In true GVM fashion, we join a bunch of middle-aged men over drinks as they discuss Adhi (GVM himself) and his college-time bestie Miru (Amala Paul) through their three-year-long friendship. He's literally 'kissing-and-telling' as he asks his friends and his present WIFE if there's such a thing as a platonic kiss between a man and a woman. The debate is delicious and with each passing drink, his friend Prabhakaran (Robo Shankar) becomes the mouthpiece for all our thoughts as the talk intensifies. The intercuts between the past and the present are lovely and there's a genuine amount of honesty when Adhi admits, even to his wife, that this kiss with his old friend was just him behaving emotionally.
What happens after must remain a surprise, but for me, this is GVM at his messiest best since Neethane En Ponvasantham. In his films, an ex isn't just an excuse to run to the TASMAC bar. A person's past is treated with a great level of dignity and love gets the respect it deserves, even if that person may not remain the same to you today. It just lets love be, devoid of labels and rules, and that's a radical idea at this point in time.