For the most part, M Manikantan’s Aandavan Kattalai is about the politics of space. A man from Madurai arrives in Chennai for fake documents, a visa, and a ticket to London. He owns ancestral land and a house in Madurai, but there’s no honourable and peaceful future for him there. Another character is an illegal Tamil migrant from Sri Lanka. With no passport or identification documents, he lives like a fugitive in the land of people who speak his mother tongue. It was for people like him, that Perumal Murugan wrote Hometown — “Don’t be in a haste to ask anyone of their hometown, there might be people who cannot tell you their hometown.”
The film begins with a whirlwind search for a rented house. A real estate agent takes the protagonist, Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi), and his friend through Chennai’s crammed living spaces. Repeatedly, the landlords reject them. For reasons like — their marital status, native place, race, religion. Even the shape of their face.
Eventually, an exasperated Gandhi says, “We came here looking for a better future. We deserve better treatment.”
Running through the film’s eloquent political commentary is the fine texture of comedy. This is a brilliantly-written script with direction that unearths vibrant humour out of mundane situations, like house hunting, divorce trials in a crowded family court, and a visa interview at the British Embassy. The film even finds a joke in a scene with just a piece of rope hanging from a roof, the only remainder of an alleged suicide.
In another scene, a man (Yogi Babu), starved and beaten in police custody, is gloomily bidding adieu to his friends at a bus station. He has to leave his dreams behind in the city, and return to his native place. For all of two seconds, the film lets us have our sombre moment. And then the bus halts, and the man gets down. His friends watch as he walks past. Has he changed his mind? Will they hug and prolong the anguish?
In the face of the cinematic cliché comes this — “You guys are so absent-minded! Why would you send me in a Thirupathi bus, when Madurai is where I have to go?” And then he runs to catch the right bus.
With such heartfelt humour and characters you don’t want to see the back of, M Manikantan has pulled off a thoroughly impressive film, brimming with warmth and life.
There is an effort to steer clear of the ways of mainstream cinema. For instance, unlike most journalists in Tamil cinema, the TV reporter in Aandavan Kattalai, Karmegha Kuzhali (Ritika Singh), doesn’t do investigative journalism. She attends press conferences, covers celebrity divorce cases, and keeps a pen and paper handy.
Headstrong and irreverent, she talks back to prospective mother-in-laws and state ministers with panache. This makes her imperfect in the eyes of many, such as her mother, who describes her as the kind of person who wouldn’t even help her best friend. But Kuzhali is confident in who she is.
Coincidence brings Gandhi and Karmegha Kuzhali together. They neither fall for each other at first sight nor pick a fight like regular movie love-birds. The arc of their relationship is so beautifully portrayed that no corny duet number or dialogue is required to depict the impending romance.
In another break from mainstream scripting, Gandhi finds a job with a non-profit theatre group. Apart from being a delight for the art department (pretty lights, colourful costumes and an artistic set), the theatre company also gives the movie an off-beat atmosphere. The characters Gandhi encounters at work are people who do art for the sake of art, not money. Nasser as the Master is a modest man who prizes honesty above everything else in life.
Sometimes alternatives professions in a big-budget film look contrived. But in Aandavan Kattalai, nothing is phony. Every new moment seamlessly adds to the film’s warmth.
The film is sympathetic towards people like Nesan, the Sri Lankan Tamil who lost his family while fleeing from the war-torn country. However, Aandavan Kattalai is about conformity — about working with the system, and thereby surviving. At times, the film morphs into a Public Service Announcement video about why nothing should be hidden from the government. But only fleetingly.
For the roles he gets, Vijay Sethupathi is one of the luckiest actors of his generation. In Nalan Kumarasamy’s Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, he flawlessly played a retired goon, a nonchalant resignation written across his face. When the character fell in love, no emotion went overboard. No smile was out of place.
Gandhi in Aandavan Kattalai is similarly brilliant. Here, he is an earnest man, confused about life. Truth is what liberates him. When circumstances force him to lie, he does it uneasily. In one scene, a senior government officer confronts Gandhi. The panic on Sethupathi’s face and voice feels real. He is an actor who, as Nasser says in Aandavan Kattalai, “gives his soul to the character he plays”. Lately, every role (including this one) he plays looks like an aspect of his personality, not just a performance for an audience.
Ritika Singh’s character is, refreshingly, a real human being and not a porcelain doll. You never expect to see her jump a choreographed dance number in Switzerland, in the middle of the story. She is at home in the humid, crowded court room. Like Sethupathi, she is a natural talent who can disappear in a crowd or stand out of the crowd, as the situation demands.
The script, co-written by Manikantan, Arul Chezhiyan and Anu Charan, is attentive not only to supporting actors, but even conversations overheard from the edge of the frame. Supporting characters possess an individuality rarely seen in Tamil cinema. Nasser plays a veteran theatre artist whose practice sessions form the backdrop for many of the scenes. The role isn’t important to the main story, but becomes an intrinsic part of the film, thanks to the actor’s prowess.
The same applies to Pooja Devariya, playing a theatre artist who agrees to help Gandhi in a critical situation. Hareesh Perady, delivers an excellent performance as the investigation officer. The cold indifference in his face is a perfect representation of what the system has for refugees and the homeless.
With a script like this, and a director who understands it like the street he was raised on, cinema becomes a delightful indulgence. Aandavan Kattalai is a remarkable cinematic feat that deserves to be celebrated.
The Aandavan Kattalai review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.