Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a new Amazon Prime Video anthology of five short films by five directors, all dealing with Covid-19, the lockdown and its impact. Perhaps this is the new direction films may have to go in for the next couple of years at least—limited crew, closed locations and simple stories?
The mix of short films and directors are interesting here: Putham Pudhu Kaalai comprises Ilamai Idho Idho, directed by Sudha Kongara; Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum, by Gautam Menon; Coffee, Anyone? by Suhasini Maniratnam; Reunion, by Rajiv Menon; and Miracle, by Karthik Subburaj.
Each short film in the anthology features music by GV Prakash Kumar, Govind Vasantha, Sathish Raghunathan, and Nivas Prasanna respectively, while the last film, Miracle, features compositions from old Ilaiyaraaja albums. The actors are mostly well-known—Ilamai Idho Idho stars Jayaram, Urvashi, Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan. Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum features MS Bhaskar and Ritu Varma. Coffee, Anyone? is like a reunion for the extended “Haasan” family, with Suhasini Maniratnam, Anu Haasan, Shruti Haasan, Komalam Charuhaasan and Kaathadi Ramamoorthi. Reunion has Andrea Jeremiah, Leela Samson, and Sikkil C Gurucharan, while Miracle stars Bobby Simha, Sharath Ravi and Muthukumar.
A look at the list of directors and it’s hard not to spot the odd one out here: Kathik Subburaj whose film Miracle, fittingly, stands out from the others. For one, the dialogues just sound more real and contemporary to one’s ears. While the other films aren’t too bad—Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum, for instance, hits all sorts of right spots—given that we’re now used to more gritty Tamil cinema, Miracle just comes across as more natural.
Having said that, it was Gautam Menon’s Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum which moved me the most. I’ve said this before of MS Bhaskar—any scene, any situation in which you need an actor to pull on your heartstrings and make you weep, please cast Bhaskar.
What is it about this man, who we’ve seen mostly in comic films, that he can just own his roles, like in Kamal Haasan’s Uttama Villain, Cheran’s Thirumanam, or this one here: as an aging scientist estranged from the daughter he treasured over and above his career, the one for whom he pines everyday but still is able to accept that she chose to stay away from him.
A lot of AN/AN’s magic lies in what’s not said out loud. Which, given Gautam Menon’s past films, and especially his early COVID-19 film (a sequel to Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya), is a great improvement. Irrespective of where you stand on GVM’s filmography, you will agree that subtlety hasn’t been his strong suit.
The little touches that just make this character—did they come from MS Bhaskar the performer, or Gautam Menon the director? Like the bookmarks that the conscientious, rational, and science-motivated reader places in his book even as he closes it for a moment, to talk to his granddaughter? Like a reader who’s done exactly this all his life? The very ‘dad’ thing of peeping into his granddaughter’s work call and sorting out a screaming man? And of course, that opening up an old, old wound: the loss of a daughter. And the healing as he gains a new daughter.
Ilamai Idho Idho wants us to think and talk about senior romance. Love at twilight. Where the sunsets are particularly beautiful, tainted though they are by the “pollution” of a lived life, of experience. One example of a film that succeeded in doing this was Ok Kanmani, which left you with warm memories of the older couple despite the best efforts of Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen and perhaps even Mani Ratnam. But this Ilamai isn’t that. Pity.
While Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan are a cute couple on screen, I really would have liked to see Jayaram and Urvashi full time, rediscovering young love, (re)discovering romance even after marriages end.
A digression? The short films in this anthology feature men who cook. Or at least men who are familiar with the kitchen and can rustle up a fairly decent meal at short notice.
I bring this up because a lot of ads and social media commentary want us to appreciate that the Indian man may have finally been forced to—gasp!—make coffee or tea for himself due to the lockdown. Growing up in a house in which my father not only helped around the kitchen, but was often the better and more adept cook. I knew that this was not uncommon at all and it gave me a bit of a shock later that men cooking at home is somehow worthy of a comment.
So whether it is Jayaram/Kalidas Jayaram as Rajeev Padmanabhan, MS Bhaskar as Thaatha who can measure his life by tea, and Kaathadi Ramamoorthi as Mahendran who has been diligently cooking for his wife—thank you for reclaiming this normal.
In Coffee, Anyone?, three sisters who were raised by a strong woman have opinions about their father’s decision to bring home said mother who is perhaps on her deathbed. Their opinions are strong, like they have been conditioned to have. The movie features elements we don’t often see in Tamil cinema—a late-born daughter, a dyslexic son and perhaps dyslexic grandfather—and grapples with the questions of morality and mortality. But why that bizzare need to get two sisters to sing in Spanish.
I mentioned that Coffee, Anyone? seemed like an extended Haasan family reunion. In essence, except for Miracle, all the other films look, sound and feel the same because either the filmmakers or the cast come from that school of Tamil cinema. We have very familiar mise-en-scenes: similar houses, staircases, lighting, pacing, upper-caste/upper-middle-class sensibilities and aesthetics.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Rajiv Menon’s Reunion. The film’s titling/design is loud, which seems like what the filmmaker too wants. We have a mother who doesn’t bat an eyelid when her single son invites his long-lost woman friend to spend lockdown with them. A friend who is coded, right from the start, as “that type”. Western music. Boots. Sings at a bar. And then we see she does cocaine, but that’s okay. Because the good boy doctor will soon fix her. If not with his medicine, with his singing.
So Miracle really feels like a breath of fresh air here. I felt that it borrows, at least in the beginning, the aesthetics of Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s excellent Super Deluxe. Pop colours. A Guru spewing soothing inanities. A man both literally and metaphorically in darkness. Then the Karthik Subburaj oeuvre kicks in. A couple of non ‘Mylapore-Adayar-Besant Nagar’ chaps, in short the ‘other’, out in the yellow sulphur light of the night, to make a quick buck while the rest of the city is in lockdown. And a little bit of making-do, adjusting with the cards that life dealt them.
Ultimately, what ties all these films together is the idea of making do with circumstances. And a new dawn, a new day, and feeling good. Just that some of these circumstances are not so much about the life and death questions that the COVID pandemic brought us.