Cast: Jayaram, Kalidas Jayaram, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Krishnakumar B, Suhasini, Anu Hasan and Shruti Haasan, Ananya Ramaprasad, Suhasini, Anuradha Hasan, Andrea Jeremiah, Ritu Verma, MS Bhaskar, Bobby Simha and K. Muthu Kumar
Directors: Sudha Kongara, Karthik Subbaraj, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Rajiv Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
All the five stories that constitute Putham Pudhu Kaalai, Amazon Prime Video’s first Tamil anthology, use the pandemic and the resultant lockdown as a backdrop. They do not, however, directly address the devastating impact of the crisis on the less privileged. Only one of the short films, Karthik Subbaraj’s slyly comic Miracle, alludes to the economic distress caused by the rampaging virus. The others focus instead on well-heeled individuals and families tackling long-standing mental blocks.
These short films are about miracles, second chances and happy endings. The reality of the world outside impinges upon them only tangentially. In one story, a woman fetches vegetables and toiletries for her father who lives alone. In another, a musician is advised not to risk travelling out of town in a crowded bus.
Subbaraj’s segment, which is the last of the quintet, changes the game quite drastically. After four stories located in cocoons of affluence, Miracle forays into the world of a pair of petty criminals reduced to near-penury by the pandemic and pushed towards a despairing act.
One might argue that turnarounds and fresh starts are exactly what the doctor ordered for a coronavirus-hit world and that tales that emphasise hope and redemption should, therefore, be embraced with enthusiasm. It is not difficult at all to relate to these shorts – the crafting is impeccable, some of the writing quite inspired, and almost all of the performances are splendid. While they are lively in a superficial way, these stories are only sporadically engaging on a deeper level.
The stories, roughly 25 minutes each and peopled with characters forced indoors and compelled by extended isolation to introspect about what is gone and what is going on, are about love, loss and thwarted aspirations. But these are individuals who can sit back and chip away at the hurdles in their way.
Each of the five stories, all of them are set in Chennai and filmed primarily inside homes – bears the distinct stamp of the director. The diverse approaches enhance the appeal of the experiment although the dividends it pays varies wildly from segment to segment.
The titles of three of the short films – Sudha Kongara’s Ilamai Idho Ido (Youth, Here We Come), Rajiv Menon’s Reunion and the Karthik Subbaraj crime film – evoke the possibility of fortunes being reversed. The remaining two – Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum (Him and Me/Her and Me) and Suhasini Mani Ratnam’s Coffee, Anyone? – do not directly point to a bounce-back but are about characters who work their way around stumbling blocks.
The key elements in Kongara’s film are scuttled love and lost youth. But, then, what’s age got to do with love? The answer that the script formulates is intriguing in terms of both substance and enunciation. The first nationwide lockdown of 21 days comes in handy when two souls separated many, many years ago plan a secret rendezvous.
Jayaram and Urvashi on the one hand and Kalidas Jayaram (Jayaram’s real-life son) and Kalyani Priyadarshan on the other capture the present and the past in a seamless flow. They are all perfectly cast in a quirky drama that carries a heavy Alaipayuthey hangover. Domestic tiffs, the re-blossoming of romance and a daring decision that causes a flutter underpin this largely non-normative love story.
GVM’s Avarum Naanum/Avalum Naanum explores another interrupted relationship in a markedly more straightforward style. During the lockdown, a young woman (Ritu Varma), visits her estranged grandfather (MS Bhaskar), a retired, reclusive nuclear scientist. Music has gone out of the latter’s life. He still rues the loss.
The visitor has to find common ground with the old man. She goes to the extent of playing along when the latter not only flit into an online team meeting but also exhorts her not to use the earphones so that the voices of her colleagues can permeate a house where silence reigns. Grandpa is willing to learn a new thing or two. The girl is ready to go the extra mile. But are the two willing to live down a long history of misgivings? GVM employs simple, uncluttered methods to draw us into this world and ensure that we are invested enough in it not to be put off by the overt sentimentality that creeps in towards the end.
In Coffee, Anyone?, an earnest and wordy family drama directed by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, three Haasan siblings – Suhasini, Anu Hasan and Shruti Haasan – team up with Tamil stage actor Kathadi Ramamurthy and the director’s mother Komalam Charuhasan. The cousins play sisters whose comatose mother is about to turn 75. The eldest (Suhasini) has a son with a learning disorder, the second (Anu) is pregnant for the first time and the third (Shruti), a late child, is too emotionally scarred to relate to the upcoming celebration. Parts of Coffee, Anyone? are a tad affected, but a couple of sequences, especially one in which the youngest daughter sings to her mother over a video chat, do hit home.
Writer-director-cinematographer Rajiv Menon’s Reunion is set in a swanky designer abode of a third-generation doctor who lives with his widowed mother. Carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan plays the surgeon, while Leela Samson is the mother. Their life changes when a forgotten college friend (Andrea Jeremiah) fetches up at their door and ends up staying for an extended period.
The bonding of the past – built primarily on music and poetry – is revived. The stressed-out girl, a bar singer and event manager, needs help to steady herself. The promise of a better future for the one-time friends hinges on the prospect of music and poetry returning to their lives.
Karthik Subbaraj’s Miracle is a completely different kettle of fish. Two goons (Bobby Simha and K. Muthu Kumar) are out of money and food. One of them, working on a tip-off, hatches a plan that could help them crawl out of the trough. The duo has nothing to lose except their godawful destiny. Also out there is a filmmaker stymied by want of funds and a smooth-talking godman who wants the world to believe in miracles.
Surprises spring out of every corner. Apart from being the only one of the five films with some outdoor action, Miracle is also replete with dimly lit shots that reflect the darkness that surrounds the two burglars who think their life is about to give them biryani, instead of just tamarind rice, on a platter. The final twist is pure Karthik Subbaraj – it brings the curtain down with a striking flourish on an otherwise anodyne anthology.
Putham Pudhu Kaalai is easy on the eye and mind but largely devoid of any radical breaks from the tried and tested.