Putham Pudhu Kaalai movie review: A relatable, yet restrictive, collection of stories of hope in the coronavirus era

The five films in Amazon Prime Video India's maiden Tamil anthology are not all equal, but they are different and thoughtful in interesting ways.

Ranjani Krishnakumar October 16, 2020 09:28:28 IST

3.5/5

In the hero-worshipping world of Tamil cinema, there is a tyre-tearing hole of one thing: Authentic and relatable stories of everyday people, who are conflicted, vulnerable, and imperfect. The one-off Pannayaarum Padminiyum or Aandavan Kattalai, while certainly bringing the breath of fresh air, do not adequately fill the gap. Web and OTT had the opportunity, which they did not make much of. Until now.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai, an anthology of hope, presents a small but delightful slice of ordinary people's lives. Without the pressures of creating a grandiose narrative for a highly paid hero, that often accompanies mainstream cinema, the anthology focusses on human interaction — the intricacies of people's behaviours that are as personal as they are universal.

The five films are not all equal, but they are different and thoughtful in interesting ways. I truly cannot choose between Sudha Kongara's Ilamai Idho Idho and Gautham Menon's Avarum Naanum - Avalum Naanum.

A rather subversive and multi-layered play on Tamil cinema's auspicious new year's song, Ilamai Idho Idho captures the pedestrianness of relationships. Jayaram, who plays Rajiv embodies child-like excitement, and starry-eyed romance. Urvashi, as Lakshmi, is delicately mischievous, convincing us that they could be a great couple, even if we have not seen much of them together at all. The telling of the story, imagining the couple as both young and old, is an intuitively clever way to make us feel what the characters are feeling.

With song, dance, wine, and wet towels, the film celebrates love, so heartily that we cannot but feel happy for the couple. And Kongara knows that true love is of the one who is happy to do the dishes!

In contrast, Avarum Naanum - Avalum Naanum is more subdued. It is about a granddaughter who reluctantly arrives to 'care' for her grandfather and cannot wait for it to be over. And the grandfather, who is eager, but hesitant to show his love in its entirety. The thaatha, played by MS Bhaskar, brought to memory my own — it is perhaps the way he says ‘right-o!’ — but also in the manner of being one who has seen everything, is almost tired of life, and only wanting to live whatever is left of his, sharing love and blessings.

Ritu Varma — who we only hear being called 'kanna,' my most favourite endearment — is unmoved, distant, and outspoken in a way only grandparental relationships are. She does not play mind games and perform self-flagellation, the way children often do with their parents. She asks question rather straightforwardly, is willing to accept any answer, and is happy to understand complexities. In an emotional scene between the two, Gautham beautifully captures what a good conversation can do. He seems to tell us that when we assume good faith, it often holds up.

There is also a passing, but important exploration of the patriarchy through the relationships between fathers and daughters. It does not shout from the rooftops, but it does not brush it under the carpet either. The cynic in me wants to protest the idea of placing one's hope on fatherly magnanimity, but the romantic in me wants to believe it. And that is the success of both Reshma Ghatala, the writer and Gautham himself.

I did wish Gautham resisted the voiceover to 'tell' us the story of the family. A lot of it was apparent without it, really. But, perhaps, something's gotta give.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai movie review A relatable yet restrictive collection of stories of hope in the coronavirus era

Stills from Putham Pudhul Kaalai. Twitter

Suhasini Maniratnam's Coffee, Anyone? is the tale of four women, in a complex web of familial discord. Each of them has their own set of problems that is so common for women of their age and social position. Each of them struggles in their privilege. The two sisters, Valli and Saras, played by Suhasini and Anu Hasan respectively, are a lot like the Brahmin women of diaspora — they overwork, are obsessed with getting things done, do not hesitate to make important calls, but are overall a little dissatisfied with their lives. Ramya, played by Shruti Hasan, is a more urban Brahmin woman, who can leave home to explore a career in music in Bombay, but feels like 'an orphan' while doing so.

This is not to say that Coffee, Anyone? is not relatable or emotional. It is. Yet, it is also told from a gaze of what I can only call kindness for first world problems.

Rajiv Menon's Reunion is interesting in how it places drug abuse within a home. The non-judgmental, almost saccharine approach to it is somewhat inauthentic, just like the neatly pressed shirts lining an open rack in Vikram's room — in my house in Chennai, even the insides of the cupboard gets dusty, man! 

Karthik Subbaraj does what he does best. His film Miracle gives another life to Arul Dass of Iraivi and a pre-donhood Assault Sethu of Jigarthanda in a situation of divine intervention, set to quirky background music from the bygone era. It works more as a unit in itself than it does as part of an anthology, which otherwise restricts itself to stories of a certain social class, caste, and position.

Nuclear physicists, renowned doctors, NRIs, musicians — four-fifths of Putham Pudhu Kaalai is about the creme de la creme of Tamil society. These are people whose life changed in no significant way because of the lockdown. In fact, these are stories of people who had the privilege of using the lockdown to re-evaluate their lives and make it better, in spite of what was going on around them. 

Adding to that, much of the work seems to have been done within close circles as well — Suhasini employs a good part of her own family in making her film. Kalidas Jayaram, son of actor Jayaram, plays the son of Rajiv in the film. Gautham, Rajiv, and Subbaraj go back to collaborators from their past.

In a film shot within constraints of time, budget and pandemic-related restrictions, creators seem to have naturally chosen both stories and colleagues closer to home. While I understand why this happened, it does not offer me much hope, though.

In my opinion, the films of Putham Pudhu Kaalai are relatable and moving only because the filmmakers stuck to narratives they knew well. But that is all the more reason that we, as an audience, should demand films are made by filmmakers of varied backgrounds. It is high time that we saw narratives of Chennai (or Madras) outside of filter coffee, Carnatic music, the Hindu crossword — and the token pickpocket.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

Rating: ***1/2

(Also read — The women of Putham Pudhu Kaalai: Kalyani Priyadarshan, Andrea Jeremiah, Ritu Varma on Amazon's first Tamil anthology)

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