'Sethum Aayiram Pon' movie review: Existing between life and death

Anand Ravichandran’s debut feature, which is streaming on Netflix, puts the traditional art form of lament ‘oppari’ to drive a narrative about mending torn relationships

Updated - April 04, 2020 05:42 pm IST

Published - April 04, 2020 05:28 pm IST

A still from ‘Sethum Aayiram Pon’

A still from ‘Sethum Aayiram Pon’

Death seemingly rents the air in Sethum Aayiram Pon .

It is an odd time to be watching Anand Ravichandran’s debut feature given the pandemic. But how often has Tamil cinema brought us a narrative that romanticises death? Do not misinterpret this: all that Sethum Aayiram Pon ’s screenplay does is paint death as something not extraordinary. “Death is inevitable,” says one of the characters. When a writer is able to make that distinction about death, it frees a filmmaker to bring out the colours around what we, otherwise, have been led to believe is a grim situation.

The first 25 minutes or so of the film exploits this idea. A village elder passes away; this attracts a congregation of villagers. The camera pans around to bring us the sights and sounds of a funeral scene, which mostly isn’t presented to great detail in Tamil films. There are the folk artists, the oppari singers, the people who apply make-up to the cadaver before dressing them up. The detail isn’t too deep except for where the oppari portion is involved. The closest a film has come to unearthing this rural flavour in a funeral situation would be Dharma Durai (2016) with its ‘Makka Kalanguthappa’ song.

But deaths keep happening around Meera aka Kunjamma (Nivedhithaa Sathish with a measured performance), a city-bred make-up artiste, as she grudgingly goes to a hamlet, Aappanoor (whose inhabitants speak a typical south Tamil Nadu dialect), to meet her grandmother, Krishnaveni (known as the opparikizhavi to fellow villagers). Meera hates Krishnaveni with a vengeance. We learn the cause for resentment later although the scene that leads to a change of heart in Meera leaves much to be desired. In all of the change-of-heart instances in Tamil cinema, this one ranks among the weakest and simplest.

Nivedhithaa Sathish (L) and Srilekha Rajendran (R) in a still from ‘Sethum Aayiram Pon’

Nivedhithaa Sathish (L) and Srilekha Rajendran (R) in a still from ‘Sethum Aayiram Pon’

But that is not what we are here to dwell on. Krishnaveni wanted Meera to come home; in fact, she may have conjured up a pretext to get her granddaughter home. When she tricks Meera into staying for a few extra days, the story starts to flow. What drives it is oppari , the dying art form, and Anand does justice in giving it the platform that so often mainstream filmmakers shy away from doing.

Oppari works on wordplay. The best instance is when the village’s big shot dies of a heart attack while he is in the bed with his mistress. The resulting lament is hilarious, as was the lead-up into the scene that glorifies his manhood.

This is not to say that the film is without it flaws. Perhaps, Anand could have used a complex storytelling format because what we get is too simple. If this simplicity is what he preferred at the outset, he could have spent more time developing the relationship between Meera and Krishnavenim, adding layers to them that a viewer might eagerly want to unwraps for oneself, or even dwell a little bit more on letting oppari drive the narrative. The lack of such minor complexities does lend the feeling of an under-cooked broth to the story.

One has to assume that the title is the director’s take on the old Tamil saying: ‘ Yaanai irunthaalum aayiram pon , iranthaalum aayiram pon ’ (meaning: an elephant is worth a thousand gold coins dead or alive). In the film, presumably, the title stands to suggest the worth of relationships the lead character learns about, which, for her, happens only in the event of a death.

Poignant, and ironical even, considering the time we are living in.

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