Chennai, 25 Aug 2018 17:08 IST
Director Lenin Bharathi has told a real story in as real a manner as possible, with no embellishments.
It is only when you sit down to review a film as classy and soulful as Merku Thodarchi Malai that you even realize how inadequate words are. What can one say about a film that stands tall simply by being true to its soul? Brilliant, perhaps. Actually, that is the only adjective good enough to describe this film.
The film, which has been produced by actor Vijay Sethupathi, tells a story sincerely without any adulterants to enhance its 'commercial' value. In the process, it simply lifts Tamil cinema a notch.
Director Lenin Bharathi's Merku Thodarchi Malai takes you to the sparsely populated villages in the foothills of the Western Ghats, on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. Most of the villagers on the Tamil Nadu side are daily-wagers. They make their way to the top of the towering mountains every day to work in the cardamom estates on the Kerala side.
The distance they cover on foot alone makes their journey phenomenal. Add to this the very real possibility of running into a herd of elephants or a poisonous snake while making the journey and you understand how demanding their daily routine is.
Getting to the top is just part of the challenge for these workers. Once there, they are expected to work hard in the plantations, after which they have to make their way back home the same way, on foot.
While all the women and some of the men work in the estates, picking cardamom, most of the men are assigned the painful and demanding task of carrying back the sacks of collected cardamom on their heads, through the narrow winding paths of the majestic mountain range.
Braving wild animals, the men make the arduous journey, negotiating their way down the treacherous pathways even as they carry the heavy sacks on their heads for a pittance.
The paltry sums they are paid to do this demanding work on a daily basis are what help them to make ends meet. Despite the difficulties, they try to save money in the hope that one day they, too, will be able to own some land in the plains and farm it.
Lenin Bharathi's film captures wonderfully the difficult lives that people in this part of the world continue to lead to this day, in the hope that some day they will stop being landless labourers and turn farmers.
The film revolves around Rangasamy (Antony), a labourer who has been saving money to buy land in his mother's name. After having slogged for years, he is on the verge of buying a piece of land when the owner, on account of his wife's influence, has a change of heart and refuses to sell.
A disappointed Rangasamy continues to trudge up the mountains to work everyday. His maternal uncle offers his daughter's hand in marriage to the hardworking young man but Rangasamy does not want to marry until he has realized his dream of buying land. The elders in the village and his mother advise him to change his mind. Heeding them, he marries Eshwari (Gayathri Krishnaa) and continues to pursue his dream of buying land.
Rangasamy and Eshwari lead a hard but peaceful life. Days pass and an old lady who runs a tea shop at the foothills decides to sell her plot to conduct her granddaughter's marriage. She offers the land to Rangasamy, who finds he is falling short of the price she wants. After a phenomenal struggle and by dint of the goodwill he has earned, he does buy the land. Delighted, Rangasamy takes up farming. But farming is no longer easy.
Soon, a new set of problems arises with greedy land-estate owners in Kerala devising new ways to exploit labourers. The conflict between unscrupulous Malayali landowners and some of the righteous Malayali communist labour union leaders results in violence. Soon, a peaceful, hardworking, sincere Rangasamy finds himself being drawn into a conflict he never wanted. He ends up paying a big price for losing his temper for a valid reason.
The struggle of the labour class to turn into landowners and the cruel ways other sections of society devise to keep them at the bottom of the class system is told so beautifully in this film that it is hard not to admire the director's work.
From the shanties that double up as tea shops to the broken and thatched houses in the region to the dark, hardened skin of the labourers, everything you see reminds you of what you may have seen and known of rural India if you have ever been there.
Even as he attempts to tell a difficult story, Lenin Bharathi does not forget to remind the audiences that the villagers are in harmony with nature. For instance, when Rangasamy starts his day at 4:30 am and heads to a tea shop on his bicycle, he encounters a poisonous snake slithering past on the main road. The reptile goes its way while Rangasamy calmly rides past, without so much as stopping to wonder if he could be attacked.
That tiny episode, lasting a few seconds, tells you so much. It shows how these villagers cohabit a region with wild animals without harming them. Both the animals and the villagers don't perceive the other as a threat.
In another instance, as the labourers begin their ascent, a newcomer, who finds it difficult to keep pace, begs the others to take a break so he can rest. As they rest, he asks about elephants. They tell him the chances of running into wild elephants in the Western Ghats are high. When the fear-stricken city-bred newcomer asks how they manage to travel through places fraught with danger, one of the labourers says nonchalantly, "Why would you be scared of elephants? If we indeed come across elephants and they are in a bad mood, all we do is fold our hands in prayer and tell them, 'Po saamy [Please go away, sir] and they leave us and head their way!"
Another charming aspect of the story is the simplicity with which the villagers live their lives. They lead content, happy lives even in the most difficult circumstances, never hesitating to help one another despite their draining workloads. Rangasamy, before beginning his climb to the mountain, collects items from the plains like sugar, money and messages that need to be passed on to relatives at the top. Though this increases his workload considerably, he does not show irritation or annoyance, and cheerfully offers to help wherever possible.
It is not just Rangasamy who is like that. The people around him, too, are equally helpful and willingly do favours for one another. This revives your faith in humanity.
The actors literally blend into the story. So perfect is the casting that there is not a single person who looks out of place or sorts. The reason is that there are no stars in the film; mostly only people living in the region.
Director Lenin Bharathi made Antony, the actor who plays Rangasamy, work as a labourer for a year. The actor lived in the villages of the foothills and carried cardamom sacks every day like the villagers. That tough preparation seems to have paid off. Antony's skin is tanned and he is of the same colour as the labourers. The shoulders of these workers have patches, caused by carrying rough and heavy sacks.
Gayathri Krishnaa, who plays Eshwari, was made to pick cardamom in the estates like any other labourer for several weeks. She does an exceptional job, leaving no room for complaint.
The settings are real, the people around the lead artistes are real, and the terrain is real. There is nothing artificial about this film, be it the story, the people, or the difficulties they face.
Antony is bound to go places. The soft, amiable, humble, hardworking labourer he plays is bound to stay on in the hearts of film lovers for a very long time.
Gayathri, who had delivered a fantastic performance in her previous film Joker (2016), comes up with yet another dazzling performance here. So realistic is the lead pair's performance that for someone not familiar with Tamil cinema, distinguishing the hero and the heroine from the rest will be near impossible.
It is not just the lead pair that has done a fabulous job. Almost everybody is perfect. Abu Valayangulam as Saako deserves special mention. He stands out as the Malayali communist leader who stands up for the poor Tamil labourers against greedy Malayali landowners.
The film has extraordinary cinematography by Theni Eswar. Take the manner in which the film begins, with Rangasamy starting his day at 4:30 am. As the sun begins to rise, the lighting changes and so does the shot angle. Eswar gives you a breathtaking view of the Western Ghats even as the first light arrives and the labourers begin their arduous journey. It just takes your breath away.
Another instance when Eswar shows his class is when the labourers begin to make their way from the top back to the foothills. The camera, focused on the sacks on the heads of the labourers, slowly zooms out even as the conversation among the labourers remains audible. The camera keeps zooming out until it gives the audience an idea of the distance the labourers have to traverse to get to the foothills.
Ilaiyaraaja's background score is another highlight. The maestro not only knows the value of music, but also the value of silence. For most of the film, he gives no background score, save for the sound the breeze makes. And when he does, he tugs at your heartstrings. His music enhances the already powerful impact of the visuals.
Lenin Bharathi deserves a standing ovation for this masterpiece. Make no mistake, this is a gem, a rare one at that!
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