Director: Balaji Tharaneetharan
Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Megha Akash
It’s a clever title: Oru Pakka Kathai. It means “a short story”, a story short enough to be told on a single page. It also means “a one-sided story”. It revolves around Meera (Megha Akash), who is a typical college-goer. She still has that girly innocence—she sleeps in a cotton candy-coloured night-suit that has a butterfly pattern all over it. Meera is in love with Saravanan (Kalidas Jayaram). The film is about a “miracle” that erupts in their lives, and it’s apt that it opens with a religious discourse in Meera’s house. (This is a good point to note that “Meera” is itself a religious name.) This long stretch—anchored by the discourse—is easily the most beautifully sustained piece of direction by Balaji Tharaneetharan. He orchestrates a small symphony of rituals and domestic chores, gestures and murmured words.
The discourse is about an episode from the Mahabharata, and it lays the groundwork for some of the film’s key questions. Take Jesus. Is He a product of religion (the Immaculate Conception), or mere science (parthenogenesis)? Does God always have to be male? Can avatars of God present themselves in the present day? If yes, would the skies pour down, like they did on the day of Krishna’s birth?
Balaji may be the gentlest filmmaker in Tamil cinema today. The way he directs his actors, the way he writes, the way his camera glides, as though suspended from a lazily floating balloon – everything is so gentle. The smallest of plot points is treated with dignity. When Meera’s mother suspects something is wrong, we see her suspicion mount steadily: through a name that appears on Meera’s mobile, through Meera’s tiredness, through Meera’s lack of appetite. When Saravanan is summoned to Meera’s home, we linger on his face, on his discomfort. He knows something is off, and we wait with him to learn what it’s all about. Nothing is pushed, not even the most dramatic developments. The film’s happiest moment is when Meera and Saravanan (and their parents) iron out their issues and decide to get on with life as usual, accepting the miracle as an unexpected gift. The scene made me really happy. It made me smile a lot.
Some of us, when faced with the unexpected, tend to freak out. Some others are calmer – they try to understand what’s happening. Oru Pakka Kathai is filled with the latter kind of people, which is wonderful at first. I loved that the drama was being showcased with an utter lack of… drama. But after a while, I began to wish that everyone did not have to react to news with a gentle reaction shot. At first, these reaction shots seem organic, because these characters are genuinely trying to wrap their heads around whatever is happening. But after a point, I wanted some emotional volatility — and I think you’d agree that the extraordinary situations (especially in the second half) warrant this.
Sometime into this second half, Oru Pakka Kathai begins to resemble Satyajit Ray’s Devi—and these are the film’s weakest portions. The “plot” takes over to such an extent that we find we have been nudged from a character study (revolving around science) to a messagey zone (revolving around superstition). Meera and Saravanan are reduced to blank-faced ciphers, and the hitherto-warm story cools down and stays at a distance. I kept getting the feeling that they established a great premise and then didn’t know what to do with it. A parallel track with a boy named Sethu promises to become a strong counter-narrative, but it peters out. But if you like Balaji Tharaneetharan’s work, his sensibility, I think you’ll find enough here to keep you invested. He’s a true original. He dreams up the most bizarre premises (the miracle in this movie is as out-there as the memory loss in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom), but he grounds them in utter reality. His films don’t seem artificial or readymade. You can feel him searching his way, and—flaws and all—the journey becomes its own reward.