The protagonist of Thanga Meenkal, Kalyani (the director Ram), is very much like Prabhakar, the protagonist of Ram’s earlier film, Kattradhu Thamizh. It isn’t just the beard and the glasses and the slightly crackpot air about the character — but also the cussedness, the refusal to listen to good sense and lead a peaceful (if compromised) life, preferring, instead, to lock oneself up in an ivory tower of misplaced idealism. I found myself with very little patience for Kalyani’s self-inflicted travails and profound sympathy for the people around him, the victims of his moods and eccentricities.
I felt sorry for Kalyani’s father (‘Poo’ Ramu), a retired schoolteacher who has to keep providing for his son’s family, and also has to stand in as proxy father for his developmentally challenged granddaughter (Chellamma, played by Sadhana, who’s directed to give a wide-eyed, over-emphatic performance). I felt sorry for Stella Miss (Lizzy), a harsh-tongued teacher who isn’t paid nearly enough to compensate for the overflowing classrooms and for being yelled at by irate parents. (To Ram’s credit, he lends his characters these grace notes, otherwise we may have ended up thinking that Stella Miss is this story’s villain.) Most of all, I felt sorry for Kalyani’s wife Vadivu (Shelly Kishore), who must surely be ruing the day she chose to elope with this man.
You could argue that Kalyani’s orneriness is precisely the point, that Ram’s protagonists are meant to challenge our preconceived notions of a lead character whom we at least sympathise with, if not empathise. You could argue that this is how someone snaps when he just can’t seem to catch a break and when life has pushed him into a corner. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Kalyani has pushed himself into this corner.
At first, we see that he took up his job as a silver polisher because the flexible hours give him more time to attend to his daughter, but soon we see that it’s because his face gets coated with a patina of silver and this delights his daughter. (Silverface, she calls him.) And later, he pretends to be Santa. You get the feeling that he’d rather be a child, along with her, instead of growing up, being a man, and facing problems in a more practical fashion. (This infantilism was evident in Prabhakar too.) I wanted to applaud when an exasperated Vadivu tells Chellamma that it’s not really Santa but her father. Someone has to be a grown-up.
And even when Kalyani grows up, so to speak, and takes up a more remunerative job in Cochin, he never really escapes that ivory tower. In the film’s most jaw-droppingly awful contrivance, he traipses across mountains in search of a “rainmaking device” belonging to tribals — so that he will get the money to buy Chellamma the “Vodafone pup” she so wants. Ram wielded a bludgeon while depicting an aggressive form of chauvinism in Kattradhu Thamizh, and he wields the same bludgeon here, depicting an aggressive form of cuteness and whimsy.
It would be easier if Ram made lazier films. He clearly thinks about what he’s doing, how he’s shaping his material. There are unusual point-of-view shots — in one from Stella Miss’s vantage, we see her necklace dangling in front of us. The sounds of transport — trains, planes, even a cargo liner — become a leitmotif. (Why, I haven’t been able to figure out.) And given the delightful scenes with Chellamma’s friend Nityashree (Sanjana), Ram does know how to write for children. There’s a sweet little scene where the two girls, on opposite sides of a window, talk about a fantasy life where Stella Miss is marched away by the police.
But these stray stretches are undone by the director’s aggressiveness. He cannot make a reference to a cuckoo without noting its tendency to live in the nests of other birds, and then having Chellamma remark that they are like cuckoos because... they live in her grandfather’s house. That poor old man.
Cast: Ram, Sadhana, Shelly Kishore
Storyline: The tale of a slow child and her equally child-like father.
Bottomline: If you liked Kattradhu Thamizh....