Cast: Vasanth Ravi, Andrea Jeremiah, Anjali
Ram's first film, Kattradhu Thamizh, was about a young man with an MA in Tamil. The director's third film, Taramani, is about a young man with an MA in English. But this is not to suggest a sudden leap into Gautham Menon territory. The degree is just something on a résumé, not part of the DNA. The protagonist of Taramani, Prabhunath (Vasanth Ravi), is the protagonist of Kattradhu Thamizh (2007) who's made his peace with a global language, though not with a global culture. He hails from a village, and says he lives not in North or South Madras (i.e. the Madras-es usually shown in the movies), but the Madras that's developed around Taramani, almost as though the stretch – known for its IT corridor – were a separate world.
In Ram's eyes it is a separate world – a microcosm of a culture clash, a place where even an MA in Tamil would struggle to find the Tamil equivalents of "be cool" and "flirt," which aren't just alien words but alien concepts. It's perhaps no accident that the heroine – Althea (Andrea Jeremiah, in her most committed performance to date) – is Anglo-Indian, a mix of Tamil and English. She's half of both, and wholly neither. She fits into this world in a way Prabhunath possibly never can. In one shot, late in the film, the distance between them is literalised: he's on the ground, gazing up at the high-rise where she resides.
The easy movie for Ram to make would have been a relationship drama around this clash, this distance between the old and new – and we do get a bit of that movie. At first, Prabhunath comes off as chilled and accepting: about Althea's personal life, he says, "Nee sollala, naan kekkala (You didn't say anything, so I didn't ask)". But once they get together, he turns, almost overnight, into Prakash Raj from Kalki. (Ram is from the Balu Mahendra school, but a lot of Taramani reminds you of K Balachander's view of men and women.) He turns possessive, misogynistic (though perhaps he was always so, and we see it only now) – he turns into a series of paragraphs in Ram's grand thesis.
Which is another way of saying that the characters in Taramani aren't exactly "believable" in the conventional sense – they don't have convincing psychological arcs. The first time Prabhunath meets Althea – she's in a short skirt, which is, of course, the accepted attire for female professionals who drive scooters in the city – they're huddled beneath a shelter against the rain (it rains a lot in this movie). When she catches him staring, he says he won't rape her. The word makes you flinch. In their second meeting, he guesses she cannot be a mother (she is one) because she still has a 28-inch waist. The charitable way to look at this is to say Prabhunath lacks social graces. Or you could say Ram has already begun to push our buttons.
Taramani may be the first Tamil film in which a woman, an upper-class woman, is allowed to be unapologetic about who she is. I'm not saying the film isn't problematic, but nowhere else do I recall the heroine gently admonishing a "well-wisher" who questions her smoking habit, "because she is the mother of a child." She replies, "Aren't you a mother's son as well?"
The women are odd creatures too. When Althea discovers her marriage is over, her reaction is that of a saint. Isn't she upset, angry? Or take Sowmya (Anjali), Prabhunath's ex, who's now married to another man. In the film's most troubling scene, she sleeps with Prabhunath and calls him the nicest man she's known. I burst out laughing. It's almost as if she wants to be treated this way. It's almost as if she thinks she deserves this "punishment." Is she, like the heroine of Kaatru Veliyidai, a masochist? (Another reminder from that film is the hero who transforms after a traumatic experience.) Or is this more of the male gaze we usually see in Tamil cinema?
Which brings me to the film's feminism. In Aval Appadithan, the strong woman is rejected by the men. The Tamil male just cannot handle her. In Marupadiyum, the woman rejects the men. She feels empowered being just herself. Taramani may be the first Tamil film in which a woman, an upper-class woman, is allowed to be unapologetic about who she is. I'm not saying the film isn't problematic, but nowhere else do I recall the heroine gently admonishing a "well-wisher" who questions her smoking habit, "because she is the mother of a child." She replies, "Aren't you a mother's son as well?"
My favourite scene is the one where Althea's boss suggests a weekend getaway – an "official trip" – at a hill station. Prabhunath is consumed by jealousy, and yet, Althea does not placate him, saying that she has put the man in his place, that the trip is cancelled. As she sees it, it's not her job to handle Prabhunath's insecurities, and she does not appreciate being grilled. This is what she tells him: "I – and not the man – will decide whether I sleep with him." Yes, the fact that Althea is Anglo-Indian does distance her somewhat from the typical Tamil heroine, but it's still a major step.
Taramani is filled with scenes that hover between cosmopolitanism and "Tamil culture," between feminism and "ponnungaley ippidi thaan (women are like this only)". Take Althea's colleague, who's married to an older man. She dances with other men at a club, and her husband says he just likes watching her dance. The ideal man, right? But when he steps out, she tells Althea that men are like dogs, and you just have to keep throwing them biscuits. Again, I flinched at the button-pushing. There's more. Before leaving, the husband reminds her about a pooja to be performed the next morning. I couldn't decide if she was being labelled a hypocrite (clubbing at night/prayers in the morning) or being lauded for finding a balance in life.
But as I said, these aren't conventional characters. They exist only in Taramani, only in Ram's cinema. The director loves to surround his protagonists with villains, and almost every man around Althea is a creep who wants to sleep with her. (An outsider might think Indian men join the IT sector only to get into their female colleague's pants.) Guess the name of a book a woman is seen reading: Asuran (Demon). That's who these men are, and the film's most shocking development is that Prabhunath turns into a demon as well, seducing a series of married women. Are there really so many women who hook up with strangers, or is this the ultimate male fantasy?
Then again, Taramani is the first Tamil film to show these men grappling with the idea of the modern-day woman (however exaggerated this woman is, in Ram's eyes). Even Althea's son – the film's youngest "man" – struggles with his mother's life choices, which aren't those of a traditional Tamil-film mother. For all its problems, this is Ram's most large-hearted film, because the protagonists end up forgiven. Althea is forgiven by her son. Prabhunath is forgiven by the people he's wronged (a Muslim woman, a railway-station cop, by Althea). Even formally, Taramani is Ram's most interesting film. Ram's writing and Sreekar Prasad's cutting produce marvellously disorienting scenes like the one where we think Prabhunath and Althea are planning to meet, but the reality is something else.
The extremeness of the characters is par for the course in Ram's world, but for once, we are offered an explanation: that there is no explanation. The film, too, is not so much a "story" as a series of stream-of-consciousness "incidents," punctuated by a voiceover that reminded me of the omniscient narrator in Y Tu Mamá También.
There's a little too much music for such a dialogue-heavy film (it's hard to hear some of the lines), but Yuvan Shankar Raja's trippy score adds to the mood, like when he layers a jaunty accordion over a shooting. It's intriguing, allusive – like the imagery: the pan from Prabunath on a bridge to the busy street below; the burial of a puppy, and later, a pigeon; the surreal visual of Althea "encountering" the men in her life on a flight of stairs; the plastic bag that floats behind Althea as a reminder of death; the shot that frames Prabhunath, Althea and her boy as a family (the doorframe is practically a photo frame), and the doorways (and doors) that keep coming between them.
The extremeness of the characters is par for the course in Ram's world, but for once, we are offered an explanation: that there is no explanation. An early scene takes us from an India-Sri Lanka cricket match to the wives of fishermen in Rameswaram, and the connection is that there's no real connection. The film, too, is not so much a "story" as a series of stream-of-consciousness "incidents," punctuated by a voiceover that reminded me of the omniscient narrator in Y Tu Mamá También. Like the god's-eye-view shots that fill the film, the narrator zooms out to the larger picture, not just about the central characters, but also about peripheral ones, like the pigeon that wonders if this suburb built on the marshlands it used to frequent is still home.
The voiceover lightens the film's tone (there are dry jokes about suicide and demonetisation), and also takes care of the question, "Why?" After deciding to leave her mother's house, why would a woman earning Rs. 80,000 a month choose to spend the night at a train station instead of booking a hotel room? Why would a grandmother tell her grandson that his mother is a "bitch"? Why would a woman with a young son allow a man she doesn't really know to move in? The slap-in-the-face voiceover says, "You didn't ask 'why' when they built this suburb on marshlands, did you?" At the end of Chinatown, the protagonist is told, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Translation: This is how it is. Ditto here. It's Taramani. It's a Ram movie.
Watch the teaser of Taramani here: