There is a scene in Seethakaathi where Ayya Aadhimoolam, a respected theatre artist, returns home after an unsatisfying workday. On entering, he learns that his grandchild needs a surgery and the family doesn’t have money for it.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier,” he snaps at his wife.
“You were at the play and I didn’t want to disturb you,” she mumbles.
“Did I ask you not to disturb me?” he admonishes her.
She tells him that she was in the middle of making arrangements for the money and forgot about him.
If there is one thing that speaks for the simple beauty of Seethakaathi, it is this scene — it tells you everything about everyone involved without saying anything at all. Ayya Aadhimoolam (Vijay Sethupathi) is a veteran theatre artist, but he is not the family-ignoring work-obsessed type. He is highly respected for his art, but not tactful in business — there is even a conversation in the film where he is reluctant about advertising his plays. He is a thoughtful man who feels alienated from the fast-paced world. He is a misfit, who is pushed to fit in.
Sethakaathi isn’t a regular 2018 Tamil film, it’s certainly not an easy watch. For the attention-deficit generation, Seethakaathi’s first 45 minutes are a test, but when you pass it, the reward is immeasurable.
The film unfolds meticulously, taking us through the life of Ayya Aadhimoolam in intricate detail. His wide repertoire of roles, his pride in entertaining the audience, his despondence for their dwindling number, his faith in the art, his close relationships with his people, his love for his grandson — through these scenes, Balaji Tharaneetharan paints vivid picture. He lets us linger there a second or two longer than what Tamil filmmakers today dare. Govind Vasantha’s music strings beautifully along with the film’s general melancholy thus far. Sometimes, he plays for us the oddly unsettling sound of silence — for instance, just before the climactic court scene, where the din of the courtroom comes to life.
The first part of Seethakaathi is an exquisitely crafted drama — a serious, indulgent and philosophical endeavour. We are seeing the hopeless life of an old man play out in front of us.
Suddenly, with no forewarning, Balaji Tharaneetharan turns it into an absurdist comedy — making us sit up and take notice of the man who made Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanum (2012). After this, Seethakaathi is full of known faces, familiar jokes — like the one about eating mixture — and predictable people.
That doesn’t make it any less interesting or rewarding. In fact, almost like a hangover from Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanum, Seethakaathi too has repetitive situations ending in similar outcomes. By the second time, you can tell what’s going to happen — it happens, but it’s still funny.
This part of Seethakaathi is a comedic take on modern-day Tamil cinema — in that it’s a film about films, like the very many we’ve seen recently. The big difference is that this isn’t told from the perspective of a budding actor/director, but that of a veteran stage performer who had thus far rejected cinema. Therefore, even as the world changes, the worldview remains.
To constantly remind us of the different worlds, Balaji Tharaneetharan fills the film with contrasts — the dark environs of theatre with the well-lit locations of cinema. The poor theatre actor in a small home with the rich hero in a multi-storied house. The true actor with many men and women who cannot act. The truly reverent “ayya” with the half-mocking “saar”.
The only link between the two distinctly different parts of this film is the actor Mouli, who plays Parasuram, Ayya’s manager and the family’s confidante. Mouli plays a pivotal role in the film — not just the story. He often bears the burden of building and sustaining anticipation alone, and does it to great effect. For a film stacked with stage plays — often the same play performed multiple times — he keeps it from becoming repetitive. Without any hubbub, he both holds fort and moves forward.
The rest of the film is about how Ayya builds a bridge to cinema, which he has so far vehemently rejected. We are told that there is a certain kind of cinema that he won’t act in, which Mouli gets to decide after listening to montages of silent narrations from potential directors. The film doesn’t venture deeper into the details — it rides safely on the back of what A-centre film-viewers talk of as ‘bad cinema’. (There is even a scene where a hero claims that Ayya’s movies have covered the A-centres but need to do better for the B and C centres.)
As is natural for an absurdist comedy, nearly everyone is reduced to a caricature. A bald producer who wants to act as a hero. His associate who slips on soap and falls into bed with him. A heroine who is there just for her laughter to invite the hero’s wrath. Fans who set up cut-outs and do paal abhishekams. Media that twists words into hashtags.
Yet, the absurdism in the film is not of action, but of faith. It is not what people do that is absurd in Seethakaathi — in fact, most of what is shown is perfectly plausible — it is what they believe that’s absurd. And when this absurdism moves from people’s minds into a court of law, the film stands on shaky ground.
Seethakaathi is an involute knot of several ideas — faith, art, money, righteousness, fandom, modern life, successes, failures, memory, life after death and so much more. The strength of the film is that it doesn’t unwind the knots and feed us already digested food. It serves a mildly incoherent elai saappaadu and lets us enjoy the parts we truly want.
Yet, the final moralising sermon comes like that elaichi in your beeda — unsavoury and unnecessary.