If there’s something of a trend in indie Tamil cinema today, it’s the village-based human-interest story that revolves around death. First, Madhumitha came out with KD Engira Karuppudurai, which was about an old man who flees a family that’s trying to kill him off in a traditional manner. In Priya Krishnaswamy’s Baaram, we actually saw these ghastly traditions. Now, we have Sethum Aayiram Pon, written and directed by Anand Ravichandran. The film’s first image is innocent enough: it shows Meera (Nivedhithaa Sathish), a Chennai-based makeup artist, headed somewhere in a bus. But listen to the song in the background: Vaarai nee vaarai, from Manthiri Kumari. It’s sung by a husband leading his wife up a mountain, intending to throw her off the top. Meera’s “don’t piss me off” expression suggests she’d welcome that fate.
She’s headed to a village named Aappanoor, where her grandmother (Krishnaveni, played by Srilekha Rajendran) resides — and death is everywhere. The old woman’s profession has to do with death. She is an oppari singer. She wails at funerals. Kuberan’s (Avinash Raghudevan) profession, too, is kept alive by the dead. He applies makeup on the bodies. He makes them look their best before the final rites. At least two villagers die. A third survives only as a photograph. Meera’s father, we learn, is no more. In one shot, a funeral pyre blazes in the distance, even as the foreground focusses on a gravestone. One of Meera’s shoots in Chennai involves a death scene, and at least two more people die by the end of the film.
The story is itself about a dead relationship. Krishnaveni is Meera’s grandmother — she’s sent for her. This is one of those films about estranged relatives, one of whom seethes with resentment. Meera is the seether. She’s a volcano ready to erupt. And then she learns things about Krishnaveni, and she realises the volcano is not a volcano after all. It’s just a balloon filled with hot air, which leaks out with a small, embarrassed hiss. This is not a spoiler. This is the DNA of this sub-genre. But what’s nice is that the film does not equate “city = bad, village = good”. Krishnaveni has done her share to bring about this estrangement. It’s just that, over time, mountains have a habit of becoming molehills.
We identify with these films because we identify with these conflicts. And we identify with these conflicts because we identify with these relationships. Sethum Aayiram Pon doesn’t offer many surprises, and there’s some too-convenient writing. (The fact that Meera lands up with her super-expensive makeup kit is a sure sign that it’s going to play a part in the drama. I just wished they’d explained it better. Maybe she was on her way to a shoot and got an urgent call from Krishnaveni and had to bring everything along?) The background score has a tendency to go all “cute” on us, and the hasty ending is its own version of Vaarai nee vaarai: it feels like the film has led us on a long journey and we’re suddenly being pushed off a cliff.
But the film works because there’s grace, there’s a quiet dignity. Even a technique as flashy as a whip-pan becomes (almost) unobtrusive — Manikantan Krishnamachary is the cinematographer — because the shots are held for long and there’s so much happening that the techniques serve the story instead of overpowering it. Nivedhithaa Sathish, who was superb in Sillu Karupatti, doesn’t quite locate the core of her character here — she’s not bad, but she never really loosens up. But the people around her are wonderful, especially Gabriella Sellus, who plays a villager named Amudha. The drama unfolds confidently, and with touches of humour — the flavourful dialogues are a big help. (Sample: Summa kaaya vecha molaga maari eriniji vizhariye!”) The best stretch is a marvellous mix of comedy and tragedy, involving a man, his wife and his mistress. This is the kind of filmmaking that makes you say: Okay, I’m going to keep an eye out for what these guys are doing next!