At least three of the five stories in the anthology film Putham Pudhu Kaalai are begging to be expanded into full-length features. We would like to know more about the middle-aged lovers who plan a surreptitious weekend when their spouses and children are away. The saga of three sisters and their fraught relationship with their parents is ripe for a Bergmanesque deep dive. And the sudden collision of a mother-son pair with the son’s schoolmate – more, please.
These characters have been thrown together for the same reason the Amazon Prime Video portmanteau project exists: the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Tamil-language Putham Pudhu Kaalai was filmed in Chennai during the lockdown necessitated by the contagion. Each of its tales, directed by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon, Sudha Kongara, Karthik Subbaraj and Gautham Vasudev Menon, examines the impact of quarantine on a range of characters, from difficult daughters to small-time rowdies.
The brief is to be uplifting and life-affirming in the face of a deeply devastating disease, which partly explains why the episodes hurriedly set up their premise and then hurtle towards a happy ending. The optimism on display isn’t always as infectious as Covid-19. Each story lasts roughly 25 minutes, which is often not enough to traverse the intended journey from realisation to redemption.
The chapter that suffers the most from the need for speed is Gautham Vasudev Menon’s examination of a young woman’s reconciliation with her estranged grandfather. Despite a touching performance by acting veteran MS Bhaskar, the story feels underdeveloped and overwrought.
Sudha Kongara’s entertaining entry unfolds like the synopsis of an intended feature. Jayaram and Urvashi play lovers who plan to get frisky when their family members are away. Their timing is both awful and awesome – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces a national lockdown, ensuring that the naughty weekend is extended indefinitely.
Kongara handles her subject with humour, but squanders the casting of the delightful Jayaram and Urvashi by having a second pair of actors as their younger selves. Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan are adequate, but it’s a relief when the more seasoned performers come back on the screen.
Kalidas Jayaram is Jayaram’s son in real life. Family members prove useful in making a film under locked-down conditions. In Suhasini Mani Ratnam’s episode, the renowned actor and filmmaker casts herself, her cousins Anu Hasan and Shruti Haasan, and her mother Komalam as members of a family herded together by circumstance. Valli (Suhasini Mani Ratnam) and Saras (Anu Hasan) fly into Chennai from halfway across the world to be with their comatose mother. Their youngest sister Ramya (Shruti Haasan) has refused to make the family reunion complete – but the woman lying silently on the bed has other plans.
Filled with emotion and containing an excellent central performance by its director, this short film is the strongest and most affecting in the anthology. It could well be developed into a movie, one that might provide the back stories of the sisters and expand on the moving relationship between the parents (the father is played by Kathadi Ramamurthy).
Smart casting also boosts Rajiv Menon’s wicked contribution, about a club performer who turns up unannounced at her school friend’s house and is forced to stay longer when the lockdown is announced. Actor and singer Andrea Jeremiah and Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan make an unlikely but interesting pair, watched over by Leela Samson’s sporting matriarch. Not for nothing are Jeremiah and Gurucharan thrown together – the story pays an affecting tribute to the healing power of music.
The shooting restrictions necessitated by the lockdown have an impact on the storytelling style. Close-ups abound and every possible take appears to have been used in some of the edits. We also get a tour of some of Chennai’s most eye-watering real estate. In these cavernous homes, with an endless number of rooms and upstairs and downstairs sections, emotions can sometimes be cramped, some of the stories mildly suggest.
An escape from the luxury is provided by Karthik Subbaraj. His short film sees Bobby Simha and Muthu Kumar as a pair of doltish robbers who hope to score a way out of their sudden lack of finances. Flip in tone, the episode provides the laughs while maintaining continuity with the rest of the films. An epoch-altering epidemic might be raging, but hope, happiness and a new world are round the corner, Putham Pudhu Kaalai suggests, not always convincingly.