Merku Thodarchi Malai Review: A brilliantly-shot slice-of-life drama
Lenin Bharathi's poignant directorial debut steers clear of genre cliches
The pre-credits sequence in Lenin Bharathi's debut directorial, Merku Thodarchi Malai, which is all of ten minutes long, prepares us for what we are going to witness in the next two hours in such a self-assured way that no film has managed to do in the recent past. The film opens with the image of rains lashing the verandah of an old, dilapidated house in the wee hours, an image that becomes a recurring motif. An old lady, half-asleep herself, awakens her son in his early twenties (who we later learn is the protagonist, Rangasamy). It's time for Rangu to get to work, and we join him in his daily routine. He goes to a tea shop, filled with a bunch of old men, and gets tea for his mother and himself. Rangu - a daily wage worker whose job entails picking up load (cardamom) from the western ghats and bringing it down to the village - visits his everyday stopovers before starting his habitual hike. The matter-of-fact dialogues that populate this stretch aren't exactly plot-driving conversations; they’re the sort of things people (mind you, not characters) talk about when they have a long history. Rangu picks up his friend Kethara, and they set out from the foothills along with a random person from the plains, who is visiting a relative up the hills. This latter serves as the audience surrogate. The cinematography is so brilliant that we actually start smelling the mountain air. The camera zooms out higher and higher until we are left with a bird’s eye view of the ghats, with the people winding up the barely walkable passage like ants. We forget to blink; the amount of detail is breathtaking.
Director: Lenin Bharathi
Cast: Antony, Gayathri Krishna, Abu Valayangulam, Aarubala, Anthony Vaathiyaar
It's a sort of reverse establishing shot, which takes us from the details to the overarching view. This shot is pure narrative - it could be a metaphor for the entire two-hour script. We see the actions of a few in a milieu, get hand-guided through the nooks and corners of that backdrop, and then, when the story progresses to the hilltop, we see the bigger picture of how this society operates. This kind of visual wizardry ranging from the mist-glazed colour palettes to the almost- masturbatory zoom-outs of the landscapes (cinematography is by Taramani-fame Theni Eashwar) extends through the course of the film, ably complementing the 'lifestyle-cinema' that Lenin aspires to make.
Lenin spends the first hour in detailing the trek from dawn till dusk, and over the course of several interconnected events, establishes the colourful, raw and rounded characters - Kangaani, the estate supervisor, Bakkiyam, a tea-shop owner in the middle of the hills, Vanakali, a proud veteran climber, Kazhudhakaara Mookkaiya, a labourer who prefers the mule despite the delays, Ravi, a greedy estate owner, Chako, the self-less Keralite labour activist, and Easwari, the demure village-girl. These characters, in addition to forwarding the plot, give us a lingering sense of the ghats and its people. The rites, rituals and traditions that make up this state border come alive before our eyes. Sample a conversation between Vanakali and Kazhudhkaara Mookkaiya (one going down the hill and the other herding his mule up) as they meet at the first-base tea-shop. Vanakali sniggers at Mookaiya who still prefers to use donkeys to carry the load, and brags about his labour-hiking prowess right from his youth. The self-narration of his life is accompanied by a superbly-choreographed pan-out, which interestingly culminates in a heart-wrenching reflection. This scene is again the narrative in a nutshell - the story of a region, its people. Life happens.
This style of filmmaking hits us hard, as it is meant to. In an age when filmmakers are forced into chopping their scenes and adding a whole lot of expositions, MTM feels like it's from a different planet altogether. Lenin writes and pulls of long scenes, often with a still camera, that goes against the conventional wisdom. By refusing to cut away from a visual until he has established its rhythm and reason for being, Lenin makes us believe we're watching a slice of real life. And the cast, which appears to have been drawn straight from the villages, helps to further the illusion.
Lenin, who never feels the need to explain everything, often pulls back and takes in the bigger picture instead of settling for the lazier close-ups, both literally and figuratively. The core plot - Rangu’s dream of becoming self-sufficient by owning a piece of land and farming in it - which comes to play in the latter half is not dramatised. When fate intercedes and Rangu’s dream gets squashed, things are largely kept in check, with no sob stories or social messages tucked in. Lenin so successfully transports us to this world that it's only when Ilayaraja's strings and flutes come in, that we are reminded that we are watching a film.
All of this may make it seem like I am overselling MTM, but the film does so much so well that I don’t feel like dwelling on its missteps. Rangu's character arc is so well done that the rushed denouement with the sudden emergence of a villain, sticks out like a sore thumb. However, the climax, which again employs the bird's eye zoom-out to its best effect, leaves you with the visual equivalent of a kick to the gut. It starts with Rangu's vacant face and then starts panning out. And slowly, very slowly, just as the camera starts to soar high, his expression starts changing. Is that anger? Is it guilt? Relief, remorse, or resignation? We strain our eyes to catch a glimpse, but we never get to know. And that's the film. Just like life, we don't always deserve the answers.