About the same time last year — a few days give or take — we were wishing an end to anthologies, at the back of the disastrous Navarasa. We had seen plenty in the last two years and it felt like a pandemic trend best left in the past. Critics and audiences alike asked for it to stop. Like most things critics and audiences say, producers paid no attention. Because, today, we have Amazon Prime Video's Putham Puthu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa, a five-part anthology about — you guessed it — pandemic-life itself.
Set in the second wave and corresponding lockdowns, the films of Putham Puthu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa are made by Balaji Mohan, Halitha Shameem, Madhumitha, Surya Krishna and Richard Anthony. Given that these shorts were made in limited budgets and lockdown restrictions, I see each of them having a lot more of the filmmaker in them than a full-length feature might have — a bit like an auteur, if you will. Seen together, one immediately following the other, the anthology lays bare how different one is from the other too.
Take, for instance, the first short, Balaji Mohan's Mugakavasa Mutham, has Balaji Mohan written all over it. It's about young love — saccharine, cutesy, goofy, superficial, even melodramatic. Balaji Mohan has no patience for us to absorb anything. He wants to spoon-feed us the sugar and force water down our throats to ensure we've swallowed.
Take the scene when someone is enrolled into a kidnapping ploy, they don't just smile and join in, they explain how they've been bored and this is their highway out of it. When Kuyili (Gowri Kishan) shares her pickle, so Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) can sense taste, she also has to comment that "this pickle is your Corona test," what if the implication is lost on us! Whenever Murugan makes puppy eyes at Kuyili, those around keep elbow-nudging each other, as though we would otherwise not know what's going on.
Yet, for a film less than 30 minutes in length, Balaji Mohan manages to keep us involved. Teejay Arunasalam and Gouri G Kishan pour their hearts into the film. Kalloori Vinoth has a wonderfully sweet charm.
Even more telling of the filmmaker is Halitha Shameem's Loners. Just like her past films Sillu Karupatti and Aelay, she writes her men with delicate care and great kindness. When Loners begins, we meet Nallathangaal (Lijo Mol Jose), a young woman so heartbroken that she angrily eats a misdelivered food order, while weeping into it. She dresses up just enough to appear presentable at an online wedding — you know, the sari over a t-shirt kind. She is exhausted when it's done.
But the moment she meets Dheeran (Arjun Das, whose hoarse voice takes a little getting used to), she forgets her sorrows and turns into a fairy godmother. She holds space for him, speaking sweet nothings into video calls, teaching him how to raise a dog. She brings a bucket load of gifts — from dog treats to homemade wine — to cheer him up. Nallathangaal's journey to happiness revolves around making Dheeran happy. In this, Halitha shortchanges Nallathangaal.
But that is not what makes the film tiresome. Loners relies too heavily on dialogue but doesn't make them great enough. The film rushes to summarise the entire pandemic experience in its 30-minute run time, often appearing superficial in its observations. Desensitisation to death, toxic positivity, doomscrolling, change, productivity, energy exchange, "soul tour" — the film talks endlessly about various pandemic concepts. But these conversations between Dheeran and Nalla are like any you and I would have on Twitter — it's not bad, of course, perhaps even helpful; but hardly something I'd remember for the rest of my life. So, through the film, we nod in agreement, while we continue to doomscroll, distracted.
As a welcome antidote to the dialogue overload of Loners comes my favourite film of the anthology: Madhumitha's (almost) silent film Mouname Paarvayaai. Nadiya Moidu and Joju George play an older couple in a volatile relationship. The film opens with Yashoda (Nadiya) plucking chillies from her home garden humming a tune. The moment she hears Murali (Joju George) behind her, the humming stops and her face changes. Slowly, even as absolutely no words are exchanged between them, we sense the relationship's dynamics. It's broken, but it works.
Writers Madhumitha and Sabarivasan Shanmugham take care not to present Yashoda's life as toil like in The Great Indian Kitchen. Yashoda is no pushover. She might fix Murali's morning coffee, but she isn't going to clean his dirty shoe prints all over the house! Murali is no macho-man either. He might grunt his way to getting coffee, but if Yashoda is down, he can barely light his own cigarette.
The writers are careful to place the burden of their situation not just on Yashoda, but on Murali too. They show empathy for both their characters, treating them gently, presenting them as flawed individuals in a bad situation. Karthikeya Murthy's music softens the blow, bringing a sense of lightness to the proceedings.
The most beautiful thing about Mouname Paarvaiyaai is how intuitive it is without scratching around for details. For instance, we don't know why Yashoda and Murali don't talk to each other — just that they fought, things got out of hand and they're both hurt. The film is so deft at handling human emotion that the events don't seem to matter. In the process, it makes the viewer less of a voyeur and more of a well-wisher. If that isn't terrific filmmaking, I don't know what is.
Surya Krishna's Mask is odd in the way it sets out to yell its message than tell its story. Quite literally, in several places. Mask feels like the kind of film that started off with a 'message' and then built a story around it. At some point, the filmmaker also got tempted by a few other messages that he decided to throw in for good measure.
The making is awkward too. There is a first-person voiceover, exaggerated expressions performed to the camera breaking the fourth wall, somewhat of a poor man's Karthik Subbaraj-esque rowdy. They make the film uneven and detached from the audience's experience. This is not to say that it's a bad or an unimportant film. Just one that couldn't drop its frills to become truly great.
The last and the least impressive one, for me, is Richard Anthony's Nizhal Tharum Idham. Aishwarya Lekshmi, who almost single-handedly carries the film, cannot save it from being a meandering exploration of loss, grief and guilt. It seeks to explore human emotions in both public and private but succeeds only in parts. The parts that are tedious such as the conversations and monologues let down the parts that are terrific like the interaction with the overbearing neighbour. The representation of Shobi's inner demons that follow her, literally dancing around her, suffocating her, remains uncomfortable at the least.
As we've come to expect of any anthology made in Tamil, Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa is uneven. As is normal for any film written to a brief — a film of hope amidst the pandemic, I assume was the brief here — it is unwaveringly positive. Overall, it's underwhelming.