BR Review: Halitha Shameem and Richard Anthony’s Films Are The Best In ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadha’

With Loners, I think Halitha Shameem breaks through to the next level and I think this film signifies the arrival of a major writer-director
BR Review: Halitha Shameem and Richard Anthony’s Films Are The Best In ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadha’

In 2020, Amazon Prime Video gave us Putham Pudhu Kaalai. Now we have Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadha, a sequel to the earlier film. We have five films set during the lockdown and there is a sense of yearning or even despair in that title. In the first film, it was just Putham Pudhu Kaalai which means bright new dawn.This one's called Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadha—will this new dawn ever rise again? And perhaps that sense of despair is brought about by the fact that we are deep into another pandemic. And there are no signs of when things are going to get all right.

We have forgotten what life was like earlier, we have forgotten what roads were like earlier, which is what we see in the first film directed by Balaji Mohan. It's called Mugakavasa Mutham, the protagonists are a pair of traffic cops played by Teejay Arunasalam and Gouri Kishan. Their job is to make sure that nobody crosses the barriers and goes through zones they're not supposed to go unless it is an emergency. It is very clear that the Teejay character has a thing for the Gouri character. By the end, there is a small twist where she ends up doing something that you think he's going to end up doing. A semi-cute subplot starts somewhere in the middle which is also about a pair of lovers —that's not bad either.

But all these remain at an idea level. They feel like basic concepts that need to have been developed. The writing and plotting is too loose. For instance, the visual of all these cops preparing a PSA video. The film itself sometimes feels like a PSA. By the end, that romantic track that started midway through the film, almost feels inconsequential. And yes, we get that maybe the idea was to make a light and fun film, but we know the light and fun voice of Balaji Mohan, and that just does not come through.

After this, we get the best film of the anthology directed by Halitha Shameem. But I'm going to keep that discussion for the end. For now, I'm going to talk about film number three. This is directed by Madhumita. It stars Joju George and Nadiya Moidu and it is called Mouname Paarvayaai. Now the film reminded me of two songs. One is of course the lovely, lovely P. B. Sreenivas song from Kodimalar (1966) which goes—'Mouname Paarvaiyaal Oru Paattu Paada Vendum'. That is where the film gets its title from. If you know Kodimalar, you will know that the heroine, Vijayakumari, was a speech-impaired character.

And here the difference is that Nadiya Moidu can talk but she has chosen to remain mute after a fight with her husband. Nadiya is a musician and she plays the flute and this is where the second song that I was talking about came to mind. It is from Abhimaan (1973) and it is 'Piya Bina'. And that song actually says that 'the music has gone out from my life after my loved one has gone away'. With this flute, Madhumita adds a layer of the Krishna myth to the story. The Nadiya character is called Yashodha and Joju George's character is called Murali Krishnan.

At first it's great fun to see these two characters mute fighting. Those little gestures that couples have, that little said unsaid things. Especially when Joju George is trying to get a task accomplished, Nadiya does it in a fraction of a second and shows him how easy it is. But after a while, we realise that there is simply not enough content to keep a 30 minute silent film going. I say the film is silent because, though there's music, there is no dialogue. So you get this feeling that maybe at least the Joju character could have spoken, even though his wife is silent. Maybe that way, we would have gotten to know a little more about this couple. Mouname Paarvayaai is certainly well-made and it's certainly watchable, but after a point you get the feeling that the decision to keep the movie dialogue free tips it into cute category—it gets sugary sweet.

Then we have Surya Krishna's The Mask. Like the Balaji Mohan film, this too plays like a love story that's also a bit of a PSA. The lead character played by Sananth wants to talk about his love life to his parents, but he simply does not have the guts. The film's big conceit is to bring in a completely unrelated character, that is Sananth's old school friend—one he has not met for several years into this story and make him impact another character.

Now this character is played by Dhilip Subbarayan. And he does not work at all. It's not about Dhilip Subbarayan's performance, it's about the conception of the character itself. It is so surreal and so out there that it just doesn't fit. Another thing that doesn't fit is Sananth's frequent decisions to stop talking, break the fourth wall and turn to us and start talking to the audience. The big idea goes back to the title, The Mask. It says that society doesn't see us but the masks that we wear and choose to present ourselves with. We need to tear these masks off if we really want to lead the lives that we want to- that's the story. But the writing is unconvincing and the ending is completely underwhelming.

Then we have Richard Antony's Nizhal Tharum Idham, where Aishwarya Lekshmi plays a Bangalore-based career woman who gets news about a tragedy from home. This woman does not have a good relationship with her family. Her home is Pondicherry, so she has to travel there. And there she faces the demons that she's been carrying inside her. Now these demons are represented by dancers who do a mix of modern dance and mime. This conceit did not go down very well with me; it just looked a little odd.

The story too was a tad simplistic. It's about letting go and learning to embrace the new, whether it is a new place or a new relationship. And I really think we should stop using dogs to cure human emotions but the film kind of worked for me. For one, Aishwarya Lekshmi is lovely. Her performance is lovely, and the film's craft is absolutely fantastic. And two, there are lovely writing touches, like the fact that our best friend, the person we grew up with might one day leave us and what do we do in that situation. The way the scene plays out is just beautiful.

Another thing that I really loved and this is where you know that the writing is individualistic, and written by somebody who's really thinking about things. This is the scene where we learned that we all remember things very differently, because our minds are different. So our individual memory of things that happened are different, even though collectively, they may be a cliche, but the way each of our minds registered that collective event is different. I really liked that touch too. These textured moments go a long way towards elevating a generic story.

And finally, we come to Halitha Shameem's wonderful film called Loners. An early shot has a wedding that is taking place on a zoom screen. So obviously on the computer screen, there's a whole bunch of people and then we get another event that takes place on a zoom screen. Let's call it a book club kind of event. So there are fewer people on screen. So there is this idea that the number of people we meet is shrinking and finally we are just left with two people—the characters played by Lijomol Jose and Arjun Das.

Like in Madhumita's film which reminded me of two songs, here too there is a recall of the legend of Nallathangal, the princess who faced a lot of poverty and finally had to kill herself and her children. Here Lijomol Jose's character is called Nallathangal and the poverty she faces obviously is not actual poverty, but the poverty of companionship. The first shot of her building is a symmetric composition of a very, very large apartment complex. And yet, when we see Nallathangal, she's all alone.

Some of you may ask why, and Halitha doesn't explain a lot of things in this movie, but I'll tell you the reason why. Because loneliness cannot be driven away just by the mere presence of people. You need like-minded people, people who get you, who think like you, people who you have things in common with. Loners is Halitha's best film. I also have to mention the cinematographer Raghav Adhithya and editor Raymond Derrick Crasta.

A lot of this film, Loners, is about the Lijo's character and Arjun's character just talking. And a lot of the time when a film is just about two people talking, a filmmaker will try to make it cute or they will try to make it about one big thing. Here, it is about several small things. It is about micro gestures like the 'aloe vera plant that is placed at a height that could harm a dog'. Conversations are so beautifully written, and they're delivered in such a wonderfully offhand manner that you feel that along with Halitha, you are getting into the souls of these two characters, almost invisibly. Both actors are very, very good, but Lijomol Jose is something else, she is amazingly astonishing. She plays nothing scenes as though they carry the secrets of the universe.

Now consider this line. I'm beginning with a quote. "We are not living anymore, we are just enacting our lives." The line is something like that. Now this sounds very heavy, right? You could almost write a self-help book on it. But on screen, it sounds so light, like air. It comes across as so casual and natural, nothing sounds artificial in this film. Now another thing that Halitha does superbly is capture the cadences of a certain kind of urban nightmare.

Usually when such characters are presented on our screen, we get them to be cute or generic or artificial or worse, they feel fake. Here you feel like you actually know some of them. He could be the wine loving IT guy who lives next door or he could be this loner who lives three doors away. What I am trying to say is that even if you don't know these exact characters, you certainly know the types. I think the film will mostly speak to a certain kind of person, a person who identifies the name 'Stargazer' on a computer screen. And it will immediately attract you when somebody calls themselves a Sky gazer or Stargazer and I think this movie will also speak to people who are very expressive about what they feel.

For instance, if you ask, how are you feeling? I'm feeling sad. No, this is about people who will give you a 10-page dissertation about why exactly they're feeling sad, what colour the sadness is, what tone, texture and flavour the sadness is. So  Lijomol and Arjun, they talk about vibes, energies, and toxic positivity. They talk about vulnerability, they talk about keeping things locked up, and you wonder—is Halitha leading us and these characters towards a romance? Is that where she's going? But she herself is not revealing anything at any point.

She keeps you guessing and she steers you and these characters so gently towards the big climax that just hits you like a rock. I actually wept. The camera keeps drifting with the characters, they are not boxed into careful compositions. There's looseness to the frames that mirrors the looseness of the conversations. And the editing is outstanding. When it's just about two people, you have to know how much I want to stay on this person, how much little microseconds do I have to give to this person just so you get that little feeling that she's feeling. The editing is outstanding. Raymond Derrick Crasta does a ridiculously good job.

I've always liked Halitha's films to an extent and I've always felt that she has a very distinct voice. But with Loners, I think she really breaks through to the next level and I think this film signifies the arrival of a major writer-director.

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