Director: Ganesh Vinayak
Cast: Tharun Kumar, Abarnathi
As you see the sprawling woods, waterfalls, and hills of Kurinji Malai in Thaen, you are led to expect something on the lines of Merku Thodarchi Malai. Up to a point, there are resemblances. Thaen looks at the people in a small settlement, Kurinji Kudi on Kurinji Malai, which is said to have herbs and minerals that keep all diseases away. This, possibly exaggerated, folk belief is the basis of the central question in the film: should we allow corporates to destroy a hill that literally gives life to so many?
Velan (Tharun Kumar), an orphan to the hills as a child, is an expert at gathering honey which is supposed to heal diseases. We are shown a shot of Velan pressing out honey from a comb, balancing on a branch, high up on the hill, with a waterfall as backdrop. These early parts of the film are filled with similar aerial shots of the hill and its hamlets. They capture the aloneness, even isolation, of the people. Even if the hill is not filled with magical herbs, you want it to be preserved.
We see how the hill shapes its people, and how they reshape the hill. We are shown the grinding rhythms of daily life in the difficult woods. Their dialect doesn’t merely have different accents, even the phrases are interesting. A girl says that she is unmarried by ‘sami kitta uththaravu varla (I haven’t received God’s command)’. It’s not just a metaphor; it’s a little window into how the people of this micro-world think. There is even a fascinating omen to decide whether two people are compatible enough to be married.
Having received such an omen, Velan gets married to Poonkodi (Abarnathi). Now, Thaen switches from merely showing you the people of Kurinji Malai to forcing you to take a very specific emotional attitude: unbearable pity. It does this by making Velan and Poonkodi representatives of Kurinji Malai. Poonkodi falls sick with a disease that requires Velan to take her to Theni for treatment. Two blemishless souls fall out of Eden. It’s meant to be a metaphor for how our verdant hills have been sacrificed for politics and profit. The only thing that really falls, though, is our interest in what happens next.
After the couple are at a government hospital in Theni, the film gives some broad political commentary with the rigor of a well-intentioned WhatsApp forward. After an activist called Das (Aruldoss) arrives, the film briefly becomes an investigation about the source of Kurinji Malai’s pollution. At the end, it becomes a heavy-handed commentary on how pitiful the plight of the Velan family is (we’ve all but forgotten about the mountains by now).
The film stacks one metaphor on top of after another which makes it virtually literal. For example, there are arbitrary scenes where Velan’s child begs for milk or money before Velan finds out and throws it away. It’s true that they’ve fallen into hard times, but nothing prepares us for the horror of a begging child. It seems like the family suddenly decided to do exaggerated things to demonstrate their terrible suffering to the world, just to make the meaning of their experiences clear: people from the hills are begging, they are dying.
We don’t really need any more convincing that Velan and Poonkodi have been dealt the short geographical straw when they were born on the hills. The final sequence where Velan carries the corpse of his wife for miles on the hill because a government hospital won’t give them a free ambulance is overtly manipulative and yet disturbing. It’s as if the director didn’t trust us to feel engaged enough and decided to show primal images to shock us.
At the center of Thaen is the question of nature versus civilization. It makes a forceful argument for the preservation of our hills, but the argument is missing nuance and depth. We didn’t need more tears and manipulative displays of hopelessness. We needed to see who Velan and Poonkodi were as people, not as just representations for the problems that plague Kurinji Malai.