The Dhanush and his father template is an industry staple. Take Vetrimaaran’s debut Polladhavan, the father and son are at loggerheads almost throughout. Or the follow up Aadukalam in which the father figure ends up becoming the antagonist and Velraj’s Velailla Pattadhari where the father paints a disappointed, lonesome picture. Mithran R. Jawahar’s own debut Yaaradi Nee Mohini (remake of Selvaraghavan’s Telugu film Aadavari Matalaku Arthale Verule) had Raghuvaran playing a friendly yet sardonic single father to a young man hustling in life and career. They are all—some in subplots—about winning the love and approval of the father. In Mithran’s latest film, Thiruchitrambalam, (also written by him) it is a contest to determine who is more disapproving of the other—the father or the son. The mother is a looming ghostly presence in this triangle.
Thiruchitrambalam is a film of such triangles. They aren’t our garden variety love triangles but just a third link that tethers two warring links. The central conflict in the first half is between Thiruchitrambalam aka Pazham (Dhanush) and his father Neelakandan (Prakash Raj). They are not on speaking terms, so they communicate through wails from each other that echo out of Pazham’s grandfather and Neelakandan’s father played by Bharathiraja. Pazham is named after him. We learn about this dynamic gradually and through the buoyant bond that the grandfather and grandson share. When Bharathiraja says he’s capable of leaping sixteen feet if his grandson can leap eight, we smile. The man was introduced to us as a filmmaker with 16 Vayathinile after all.
There is one more tether to this volatile family of three men. It’s Pazham’s childhood and best friend Shobana (Nithya Menen), the lingering shoulder and agony aunt in Pazham’s life. A beautiful scene involves her walking into Pazham’s house and all the way into Neelakandan’s room after the latter has rained abuses upon his son. In a fit of rage, she throws away the shoe that police officer Neelakandan is absentmindedly polishing. As Neelakandan quietly repents, she walks back in to pick up the shoe and finishes polishing. Mithran fills up his film with such quiet, pacifist images that not only convey these triangles but also make them real.
The film does look like an update on similar characters that Dhanush has played in the past. In films early in his career, he’d be looking for employment or is a working-class youngster who is struggling to grasp English to find the job he wants. Dhanush’s films and characters always exposed the class and at times the caste divide. It’s difficult to locate Pazham here but they do live in an old school looking apartments (the production design is delectably old school as well; it is KK Nagar and Virugambakkam of Chennai). These are not gated communities but housings where you can walk freely into neighbour’s house or demand biriyani for Eid and have annual day dance celebrations like a school.
The Dhanush of Thiruchitrambalam can speak English, he was once a school topper and an active outgoing college boy. Now he’s a man who delivers food for a living and his friends live in a different looking Chennai—the one the early Dhanush films stood up against. The name of the company/app is called Doink as if to be pointed about his worth. It’s a family stuck in time and place besieged by trauma, one that hasn’t moved on from a tragedy that swept away a certain zest for life.
But for a film about such weighty issues—including Pazham’s romantic persuasions which doesn’t necessarily turn this into a romcom—the tone is subtle and there’s a lightness of touch. A major health setback isn’t treated with loud cries for help and an enigmatic turnaround doesn’t inspire frantic celebration. The film is happy in its process of healing, nothing ever seems final. Pazham’s attempts to make worlds collide is ignored in the interest of resolving the tangles within a family and with a best friend. Thiruchitrambalam isn’t interested in fusing the larger worldly issues. It remains a character study and how curled up into a void can individuals go when hit by grief. Maybe that’s why the rush towards the ending borders on farcical even if logical. But the film is surely more serious than it lets on.
Dhanush in a space of less than a year has given us two of the most infectious, joyful and jaunty song acting pieces, Atrangi Re’s Little Little and another in Megham Karukkatha in Thiruchitrambalam. And in a matter of three weeks, Nithya Menen has put up two first rate performances that couldn’t be more divergent—a wordless mastery in 19(1)(a) and the garrulous but contemplative Shobana here, someone who is cried over by her mother but uncared for by most. The film is ultimately about that. People learning to care as much as they crave for love. If you wish to reap, you've got to sow.