Oru Pakka Kadhai movie review: Balaji Tharaneetharan offers one of the sharpest critiques of modern Tamil society

The biggest success of Oru Pakka Kathai is the adamant normalcy with which it treats everything.

Ranjani Krishnakumar December 26, 2020 14:41:41 IST

4/5

From the first scene in which we meet Meera and Saravanan, they carry a peculiar look on their face — furrowed brows, slightly parted lips, questioning eyes. It is a look of incredulousness, as if what they are seeing and hearing could not possibly be true. Yet it is. It is with this look that Balaji Tharaneetharan builds Oru Pakka Kathai, frame by frame, pointing out the lack of logic and rejection of scientific rigour that pervades our world today. He does not spare anything we hold as sacrosanct.

Oru Pakka Kathai is a page from the lives of Meera, a college-going woman and her lover Saravanan, who is also studying. Their parents have agreed for them to be married once Saravanan "is settled." They platonically wait. Until something miraculous happens: Meera gets pregnant and their lives are thrown into disarray.

The biggest success of Oru Pakka Kathai is the adamant normalcy with which it treats everything. Balaji Tharaneetharan is in no hurry to aggrandise anything.

He absorbs no pressure from either the narrative or the craft. He lets his cinema slowly unravel, never once losing control.

Take the introduction sequence for instance. We see a small boy who claims to be god because he can see things in his mind’s eye. We laugh him off and enter the house full of adults, who are sitting in front of a godman listening to him narrate god’s story. Suddenly, we are confused: Is this a joke too? Except, it is not. There is nothing in Balaji’s framing or C Prem Kumar’s cinematography that implies humour. In fact, this is just context-setting.

Closely following this, there is a conversation about periods. And a non-conversation about sex. There are judgmental gynecologists who hardly let the couple speak, spitting objectionable advice at them. There are extremely caring parents, who do not believe in the agency of their children. 

Every character and every scene you see in Oru Pakka Kathai reminds you of someone or something. The world-building is both intricate and spectacular, the humour biting. My absolute favourite scene in the film is when a godman points at Saravanan from the crowd and invites him to the stage. Saravanan does so obediently. We do not yet know if Saravanan is a believer or just a gambler who has nothing to lose — we later realise it is a bit of both. The godman asks Saravanan, “What?” Saravanan responds with an exaggerated version of his standard expression as if he did not have a plan, before a junior godman explains that ‘what’ means ‘what can I do for you?’

Tharaneetharan fills the film with chuckles like this — some in words, some in just the expressions of his actors. Kalidas Jayaram shines as Saravanan, a young man who is so untouched by social mores that you wonder if he himself is a miracle child. Megha Akash as Meera has little to do, which she does adequately. The boy who plays Sethu walks around with a perpetually naughty spark in his eyes. 

In spite of all the empathy the film offers its characters, there is a chilling commentary of the world we live in. For example, in the otherwise unhurried film, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss scene of a television debate with four talking heads. Each one offers an opinion, all of them equally unconsidered and unexplained. At first glance, I thought the scene was ill-imagined and incomplete. As the film came to its glorious end, I could not help wondering if it was the writers’ clever commentary on our media too — the need to bring “all sides of the story” and make inane comments.

Something more interesting happens on radio. A speed-talking radio jockey says something objectionable, to which Meera takes offence. In response, the RJ apologises, with the excuse “flow-la vandhuduchu” (the words came out in a flow). This is a common excuse among television and radio hosts who say the most offensive things — like Abhishek Raja who recently asked Kalidas Jayaram if Sudha Kongara chose him to play Sattar in Paava Kadhaigal for his "pink lips." Oru Pakka Kathai is not about an unthinking media, but the criticism is unmissable.

There is also a lot of implied criticism of the common folk. The moment Meera gets pregnant, the need for Saravanan to “settle” disappears. I found myself wondering who is going to pay for that kid’s upbringing. Soon enough, Saravanan does settle down, in that he appears to earn a living. It is as if Tharaneetharan is telling us that everyone settles down anyway, and there is nothing remarkable about it.

The sharpest and most serious of criticism, though, Oru Pakka Kathai reserves for godmen. The third act is the most piercing in showing the depths to which religious conmen would fall to keep their position. It is also heart-breaking, the knowledge that the common person might have little to stand up against such power. Govind Vasanta’s music in this part of the film is especially stirring, subverting sounds of prayer to evoke terror.

Oru Pakka Kadhai is a densely written page of a miracle in everyday life. Tharaneetharan knows his craft and flaunts it. Do watch it before some Hindu rights group lobbies ZEE5 to withdraw the film, which I predict is rather likely.

Oru Pakka Kadhai is streaming on ZEE5.

Rating: ****

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