Saivam opens with a shot of the sky, and the camera keeps staring at it as voices waft up from below, like fumes from a kitchen. We hear vendors hawking fish, chicken, crab. The camera descends, and we see it’s a village market. The matriarch (Kausal) of a household, accompanied by a servant (Malathi), makes her way through the rows of stalls. She cannot decide what to buy, so she has the servant call her husband (Kathiresan, played by Nasser). Thus far, it’s an unremarkable scene. They’re just shopping for food. But soon, we are invited to chew on an existential conundrum.

After they return, the servant inadvertently lets loose the animals in the house. Cattle and fowl scatter on the roads, and the members of the household go chasing after them. The animals are caught. They’re brought back. The matriarch, now, does an inspection, and here’s how she does it: she doesn’t count heads, like you’d expect – instead, she calls out names, like a teacher taking attendance in class. It’s the smallest of ironies. This woman who, just a while ago, was buying meat, is referring to each creature by name, as if they were family. Can you nibble on kin for dinner?

That’s the problem facing young Thamizh (Sara), when Kathiresan announces that their rooster will soon be sacrificed to the local deity. (The rooster has a name, naturally, a most adorable and human one – Paapa. It’s a… baby.) A little later, the bird goes missing. Will it be found? Will it be inhumanely slaughtered? This, ostensibly, is what Saivam is about – even that title, designed with the restaurant-menu symbol for non-carnivores, espouses vegetarianism. And it is enough to send a chill down the spine. Are we going to be force-fed a green message (Eat Spinach, Not Steak) for the next couple of hours?

The answer, thankfully, is a resounding no. Saivam is directed by Vijay (Madrasapattinam, Deiva Thirumagal), and nothing in his career prepares you for the delicacy of his writing, his filmmaking here. Even a major accident, which would have had another director salivating at the possibility of staging an emotion-filled flashback, is very simply alluded to, by just the sounds of the collision.

The story of the girl and her rooster is a bit of a red herring (as is the ‘vegetarianism’ angle; it’s more about superstition and rituals), for Saivam is really about family dynamics. The ‘plot’ – if you want to call it that – is about the various little things that happen between sisters and brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles. Imagine one of those Fazil movies where the clan gathers in the ancestral manse (there’s even one of those ‘happy family’ songs) – peel away the melodrama, flavour with liberal sprinklings of wry, understated humour, and you have this toothsome little fable.

So many things could have gone wrong. There’s a bit about the importance of agriculture, at a time when farmhands are fleeing to the cities in search of other employment. There’s another eye-opener in the fact that Thamizh is quite conversant in English, despite studying in a government school in a village. But these aren’t allowed to become neon-lit ‘aha!’ moments, and neither are the city-dwellers lampooned for deserting their ‘culture’.

In one of the film’s best scenes – though there are so many, it’s hard to pick one – an aunt (Usha, played by Suchitra) asks Thamizh if she remembers her. The girl just stands there, bewildered. And Usha’s mother, the matriarch, chides her – how will this little girl remember you if you never visit? Usha’s face falls, and then her mother asks – in front of everyone – if there’s any news about children. Usha replies that they’ve been undergoing fertility treatments and nothing has worked. Then she adds that this question is why she never visits. A broad city-versus-village scenario is skirted, and we’re left with an intimate mother-versus-daughter scene. It’s wonderful.

As is the cast, on the whole. It’s been a while since we saw such terrific ensemble acting – led by Nasser at his stateliest – and it helps that most of the actors are relatively new. They don’t bring with them bad habits from TV serials or the movies – there’s none of the gesturing we usually see, and we are spared those horrible reaction shots. The parts are small, but they’re so well-written that we take these characters to heart. The teenager (Baasha) with the guitar who’s a little too anxious to meet his aunt. The chubby kid (Ray Paul) with the permanent scowl. They’re all flawed, funny people.

Only Thamizh comes across as a tad too ideal, a little too self-possessed for a girl so young. This trait is showcased in a moment where she falls and scrapes her leg, but pretends as if nothing happened – and this is endearing. But when she’s made to voice the film’s (minor) thesis points – Why does God demand the sacrifice of the rooster? – or when she does things like rescuing Usha from an embarrassing situation, we get a whiff of the melodrama that’s lurking at the corners. But Vijay never lets it seep into the material, except in a miscalculated scene where the servant’s husband (George) lets loose one of those tearful ‘Tamil-film speeches’ to unite the bickering brood.

It’s a measure of how good the film is – and how well-crafted it is (apart from the exquisite framing, note, for instance, how the camera shudders all around a brawl, before falling on a drunk) – that the reservations are almost non-existent. Maybe a handful of lines are a little too insistent. Maybe the score could have been mellower. (It may be time to ban that tinkling music our composers use to signify that a child is in the scene.) Maybe the bits with the rooster thief and the seer (Shanmugarajan) could have been trimmed. (These scenes feel a little aimless.)

But these niggles hardly matter in view of the larger achievement, which is a film that infuses artistry into a generally light-hearted entertainment. You can sense that Saivam is an all-round labour of love. There isn’t an iota of cynical calculation in it.

I keep returning to the writing, but it’s really so good that you want to keep talking about it. The way it is revealed that the school peon is a bigamist; the way three separate disputes come to a head around interval point; the way the family is united in a lie; and the way Nasser smiles, finally, when he gets what he wants. That smile says it all. There’s no need for dialogue – and there isn’t any. Seriously, where was this Vijay all this while?

Saivam

Genre: Family drama.

Director: Vijay

Cast: Nasser, Sara.

Storyline: Members of a family gather as a sacrificial rooster goes missing.

Bottomline: A wonderful heart-warmer, with superlative ensemble acting.