Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cuckoo (2014)

Have you ever noticed how your jaw starts to hurt a bit after you cry a lot? Well, that's exactly what happened to me as I watched director Raja Murugan's phenomenal debut "Cuckoo". It reveals to us a world of people who have been living right in front of our eyes for all this time. While I believe no human should ever be bereft of any of the five traditional senses, there's something particularly cruel about blindness. We all must have noticed how visually impaired men and women come together and live as a family. They marry either because it makes sense from a financial point of view or just because they are in love. This is one such love story where the possibility of love happening at first sight is nonexistent. And what a love story it is!

With Helen Keller posters adorning the walls of her hostel room, Suthanthirakodi (Malavika Iyer) is a determined young girl who wishes to see her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher come to fruition. Tamizh, played by Dinesh, is a talented singer in his own right. Things happen, they eventually fall in love and more problems crop up, but there's nothing I could write here that could capture the emotions I felt watching "Cuckoo". Going from moments of intense tenderness to heightened melodrama, I was an emotional trainwreck. Through the 160 minutes of the film's runtime, I was a well-tuned clock reacting and relating to the tiniest of elements. I can't even seem to put a finger on what made it work so well for me. Sure, the writing and the performances are great, but it all just comes together in Raja Murugan's confident, calculated and empathetic direction. 

"Cuckoo" is a treasure trove of memorable supporting characters, where almost everybody is a whole person - complete with aspirations, complexities and imperfections. The people in the performance troupe, Ilango and Sangeetha, the gang at the Perambur railway station, the transgender who wipes excess talcum powder off Tamizh's face, the apathetic Brahmin Uncle on train we all have seen at some point in our life, the shopkeeper at Moore Market.. something about each person stands out in the most natural way. Except for the one degenerate share-auto driver, everyone else is having their own good vs. evil tussle, constantly climbing up and down the grayscale. 

Like the politician who deludes himself into thinking he is changing the lives of at least two families every waking day. Even though corruption comes most naturally to him, and he acknowledges that he's a bit of a scumbag, he still has utmost respect for women and strives to become a better person everyday. Near the end, both Tamizh and Kodi separately find themselves at the mercy of two men whose intentions are unclear to us. I'm not sure if the scenes were deliberately directed in a way to make us suspect them or if it is just the cynicism I carry everywhere I go. Maybe it's a bit of both. But then there are genuine instances of humanity and sheer goodness that takes you by surprise and completely shakes you up.

If there is any such thing as an Indian equivalent of the "American Dream", the character played by Aadukalam Murugadoss is living it. We seldom see someone who looks like him dress up sharply and be able to afford an Innova car. It's pleasantly surprising to see Murugadoss who, by the industry standards, is doomed to play impoverished characters get cast against type. It's a rare case in our cinema where a character realistically achieves upward social mobility through sheer hard work.

To compensate for their lack of eye-sight, Kodi and Tamizh, like every other blind person around them, develop a very strong sense of hearing, smell and touch. The film shows how they use these three senses to bring in a measure of normalcy to their life. It appears that, over the years, Tamizh has developed a strong sense of hearing and is able to tell apart Kodi from yards away. While Kodi acknowledges her inability to do the same, she tries to make up for it through her sense of smell (she makes Tamizh wear a perfume - a particular perfume because it reminds her of her favorite color pink.) That's the thing about "Cuckoo"; you keep getting the feel that it knows what it's talking about. And who knew watching two people feel each other up could move one to tears? 

Their disposition can be characterized as a mix of a contentment and a steely resolve to never fall into despair in the form of self-pity. Their sorrows must be plentiful but they put up a brave, happy face. In a scene which I initially considered redundant, Kodi meets his braille tutor Vinodh's fiancée, while expecting a proposal for herself. As if the awkwardness of the whole situation were not enough, the fiancée offers Kodi a bag of her old (albeit washed and pressed, she mentions) clothes. Reluctantly accepting the bag after refusing several times, an already hurt Kodi is unintentionally ridiculed further when the fiancée takes a photo of Kodi to post on her Facebook. The couple pat themselves and each other on the back for being "social minded" when a hurt Kodi decides that she has had enough of their mockery and politely excuses herself. The film makes it a point to call bullshit on people with privilege doing superficial charity to feel better about themselves. As if the world, by default, is not an incredibly biased and unfair playing field for differently-abled, they also have to put up with the bullshit of the well-endowed.

I love it when a film sets me off on a trail of thoughts even as I am watching the film; that happened again and again during "Cuckoo". In one scene, Tamizh tells Kodi that he dreamt of her last night. And suddenly I couldn't stop thinking what the dreams of a person who has never seen a thing in the universe made up of. How do they perceive beauty? "Car'a paathu maar'a pathu love vara kalathula.." how can two people fall in love without ever seeing each other? More questions. How long did it take them to reach a point where they learned to accept themselves for what they are? How is religion still an option after suffering so much? 

It's also a film with a strong sense of place and time. I would have been majorly pissed had the film randomly staged scenes at various railway stations in and around the city. But the fact that the film thought it necessary to mention that Kodi had to wait at Veppampattu railway station, which actually is four stops away from Hindu College, after getting duped by Tamizh is enough to win me over. It is also established very early in the movie that elections are around the corner. This leads to some interesting exchanges and confusions which have been thought through rather well.

I wasn't very fond of this pocket watch owned by Kodi that chimed cuckoo every hour. It is the only souvenir she has left in her father's memory, not unlike Tamizh who keeps his late Mother's thaali. But there's a degree of unexplainable triteness to hinging romance around this object, which hardly even establishes itself as the symbol of love in this relationship. It must have certainly been important if the director was willing to name this film after it. What its relevance is on a symbolic level, I was not able to grasp.

Finally, let me talk about the main reason I even watched this film. A lot has been said about Vijay Sethupathy's ability to select good scripts, but I think there's one person whose involvement in a project has become a hallmark of quality: Santosh Narayanan. His music is the soul of this love story, evoking that same feeling that a generation has come to solely associate with Ilaiyaraja.  "Cuckoo" is also a spectacularly well-shot film. It has cliches and there are moments of unrealistic coincidences. The climax sequence itself feels a tad extended. But the emotional impact the film manages to have is indisputable. Kodaiyile mazhai pola indeed.