Mumbai, 01 Jul 2021 23:27 IST
Ganesh Vinayakan's film is a critique of the 'development' that does more harm than good to native dwellers, who are robbed of land, life and culture in return for identification numbers and illnesses.
Watching a film that depicts the inhuman functioning of bureaucracy is difficult, particularly during a pandemic. Personal experience aside, the sight of people crying for oxygen leaves too deep a scar, colouring the perception of the movie.
Ganesh Vinayakan's Thaen (Honey) weaves the sense of rigid bureaucracy, the Kafkaesque absurdity of identity and the questions surrounding an ethnic lifestyle into a moving tale about a man and his wife. If only the characters were left to evolve in a more natural manner, without the burden of the social and political drama weighing on their shoulders, this film would have transcended its limitation. Still, it is a moving testament.
The story begins in the mountains of Kurinji, near Theni district in Tamil Nadu. Velu (Tharun) is an orphan who grows up in the forests and the hills and is an expert at collecting honey. The hills are central to his life and to the villages around them, as a source of livelihood, medicine, spiritual inspiration, and even a symbol of divinity. In these hills, he meets and falls in love with Poongkudi (Abarnathi).
The director portrays life in the verdant hills through an emotional lens, and the effect presents itself. The nuances of the dialect, the culture, the mores and traditions that show themselves in the food, the medicinal herbs and their approach to sickness make for an effective tactic. A key portion is the splitting of the banana plant's trunk. A community ties its lives to these omens born from their surroundings.
Velu breaks the tradition in a way when he decides to marry Poongkudi despite a bad omen. The resultant child is mute. The greater agony is when his wife falls sick. The unidentified stomach ache that refuses to cure itself through his natural herbs becomes the bane of their lives.That is when the film transports itself to the grounded cities, filled with their bureaucracy.
The city is a veritable den of corruption. It is dififcult for Velu to distinguish good from bad. The kind beggar, the rude doctor are there to help. The soft-spoken social worker and the bureaucrat have their own agendas.
The city portion is also where the message grows too heavy on the film. While it starts off as a tale of two individuals in a community, it is slowly overtaken by the social concerns and political aftermath of the community's wealth being desired by others. This message soon morphs into political commentary and social critique and veers away from Velu and Poongkudi's story. There are moments of amateurish acting, but mostly the emotions of the story overcome them.
The political and social critique, however, lacks the subtlety of the portrayal of community life in the hills. It is in your face and the visual melodrama is overpowering. It is unquestionably powerful and acts on your emotions. But on contemplation, it feels like a tactic that dulls the power of the story's nuances. It prevents Velu and Poongkudi from being two individuals caught in this war between nature and development, and turns them into symbols of nature.
Ganesh Vinayakan embeds the film with some powerful lines and visuals. The opening cinematography captures the quiet, verdant life in the mountains. Sanath Bharadwaj's music helps to create the mood to enhance this. There are even some subtle scenes that capture the absurdity of the bureaucracy in the region. Velu's struggle to get an Aadhaar card or a voter identity card to get insurance to prove he is below the poverty line is one brilliant subplot.
Thaen is an effective portrayal of life that is slowly consuming life in the hills. Development as a promise is of no use to people who live off the land. As the beggar in the film says, "If the government promises you an identity, it will take something bigger from you." People reduced to numbers and statistics is a reality that hits the viewer hard. A sharper editing hand on the script might have transformed the film.
Thaen is now streaming on SonyLIV.
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