Director: Halitha Shameem
Cast: Samuthirakani, Sunaina, Leela Samson, Nivedhitaa Satish, Sara Arjun, KravMaga Sree Ram, K Manigandan
Like the literary world makes space for novels and short stories, cinema could use more anthologies. For one, not every character needs a feature-length movie. Sometimes, we just need a sense of their essence, through a slice of their lives – like we got in Vasanth's Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. And two, the liberation from a conventional character "trajectory" – spread over two-something hours – allows us to linger on a specific emotion: anger, or loneliness, or love, or whatever. Take Amuthini (Sunaina) in "Hey Ammu", one of the episodes in Halitha Shameem's second feature Sillu Karupatti. She is in one of those marriages (Samuthirakani plays her husband, Dhanapal) where housewifery has rendered the woman near-invisible. She wants Dhanapal to notice what the driver of her children's school bus does, that she's cut her hair. But he's just not that guy!
Narratively speaking, this is the least interesting of the four episodes in the film, because it's the most obvious. It relies on a technological deus ex machina, the modern-day answer to the diaries in older films where the man leafed through the pages and instantly understood what the woman wants. But the performances are astonishingly good, the framing is exquisitely delicate, and the editing is a superb symphony of family/community life and individual reaction shots. I enjoyed Halitha's debut Poovarasam Peepee, but her technique wasn't yet on a par with her ideas and instincts. In Sillu Karupatti, her filmmaking has caught up. The over-reliance on a very obtrusive background score (by Pradeep Kumar) apart, she announces herself as a front-rank filmmaker.
As in many anthologies, the four episodes are interconnected through people and objects and even stray animals and birds. A shampoo bottle in one episode transforms into a shampoo ad in another. An Ola driver in one episode finds a mirror in an auto driver in another. A shiny ring in one episode finds a companion in a shiny, gem-like object in another. Characters from one episode do fleeting cameo appearances in others – as do settings, like a hospital. A youngish man in one episode has no family support while dealing with a medical condition, which is the exact circumstance of an oldish woman in another episode. Plus, there's always the sense of coincidence or chance, the sense of a benevolent fate working overtime to mend broken lives, bring people together.
These connections don't appear contrived, because the basic thread running through the four episodes is… human connection. Sometimes, this connection is in the form of something tangible, like love. Sometimes, it's simply the unspoken connection between a rag picker and a girl so rich that she gazes at him from a high tower, like a captive princess in a fairy tale. The point-of-view shots say what words cannot (or need not). The latter episode (titled "Pink Bag") opens the film. We see the boy rummaging through a sea of garbage in a dumpyard, and racing towards a fresh load being emptied, as an army of flies swarms around. But we are not asked to pity him. Instead, we are invited to share his excitement at the wondrous new things he will find amidst these discards from others' lives.
Halitha's stories may be sweet and sentimental, but she seems to be a realist. Her mantra seems to be: It is what it is. A young man with cancer sees his hair falling out. Does he weep? No. Are we invited to weep for him? Again, no. It is what it is. An older man talks to a newly found female acquaintance about his dead wife. After a while, he realises what he's been subjecting this woman to. He apologises. She doesn't feel sorry for him. She replies with one of the many piercingly insightful lines in the film. She simply says, "Idhukkellaam 'sorry' sonnaa namma vayasukku arthame ille." Translation: It is what it is.
This tone is the reason the background score feels so out-of-place. The music pieces, by themselves, are lovely – but when placed behind such spare, low-key filmmaking, these Ilaiyaraaja-esque flourishes sound like a crashing wave when you merely wanted the gurgle of a brook. I realise that, as audiences, we don't have much patience with silence on screen. But then, when Ilaiyaraaja was making those magnificent scores, our predominant mode of filmmaking was melodrama. Now that our directors are beginning to explore other forms, isn't it time to look at how much of the tonality they seek is lost amidst the violin swells and percussion rumbles? We want to sense the emotions running through the rag picker, but the music does the "sensing" for us.
I felt a pang for the young actor (Rahul), who's wonderful. (His smiles are their own kind of background score.) The casting is impeccable right through, from the bigger names (Leela Samson, who appears in "Turtles") to the actors who play mothers in a slum talking about their children or hospital nurses cheering up a post-surgery patient. The episodes are shot by four cinematographers (Abinandhan Ramanujam, Manoj Paramahamsa, Vijay Karthik Kannan, Yamini Yagnamurthy) – there's nothing flashy, and what we see is a single, unifying voice, that of the director, who also has a way with very funny zingers. My favourites: one about the underarm, the other about wi-fi in a sperm preservation facility.
Halitha has a marvellous way of talking about taboo topics without saying: Listen up, I am talking about a taboo topic. When Amudhini says she wants meaningful sex, it's about as "titillating" as listening to a friend sigh about weight gain. It is what it is. And the taboo-est topics of all – in Tamil cinema – come up in the best episode, "Kaakka Kadi". Testicular cancer. Porn stars. A woman who doesn't get instantly giddy at the prospect of love. (Nivedhithaa Sathish is superb as Madhu, who swears she doesn't have a single romantic bone in her body.) A man who learns to smile through his "de-masculinisation". Looking at Manikandan chart a complex web of emotions, you wonder why we have to look towards these "small" films for such consistently great acting. Maybe that's another reason we need more anthologies in our cinema.