Right from the opening stretch of Dada, Ganesh K Babu announces that he is a real filmmaker. What we’re watching is basically an "I love you" scene, but rendered without the words being spoken. You see this love, you feel it – especially when the contrasting background is that of a neighbouring couple screaming at each other. You know how you can keep looking at a loved one when they are sleeping, and just savour the blissful nothingness of the moment? This is that scene. What makes it even better are the gentle piano ripples (the score is by Jen Martin) and the gentler conversation that follows. It involves the topic of tears, and you think this is going to set up a big payoff scene at the climax. But no. When the payoff does happen, it is as unassuming as this scene: we see it in an autorickshaw mirror, in the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere.
The first half of Dada is the most satisfying young-love story I have seen since Elan's Pyaar Prema Kaadhal. Okay, it's not just a romance – but it has that same vibe of not wanting to push an emotion too much because "otherwise the audience won't understand". Ganesh trusts his lead actors to convey feelings through micro-gestures – and both Kavin and Aparna Das are superb as Manikandan and Sindhu. At one point, he kisses her casually and leaves. She looks into the mirror casually. She smiles a very small smile, again casually. The big idea is an unexpected pregnancy, and I loved every bit of how this was handled: the way (and the location where) this revelation is staged, Sindhu's anger, Maniakandan's helplessness, and finally the reconciliation in a silhouette shot. A less confident filmmaker would have had lines that underlined all of this, but we already know this "content", and the "form" is refreshing. Cinematographer Ezhil Arasu K does brilliant work with light and shadows, mirroring this couple's ups and downs.
The crux of the relationship dynamic is that Sindhu does not overcomplicate things, while Manikandan is torn between his love for her and his fear of a future he was not yet ready for. Sindhu adjusts easily into a lower-income-group flat, while Manikandan keeps thinking about their financial situation. The valaikappu scene is a beauty: again, no words, just a row of happy people except Manikandan, whose face reflects his mixed emotions. Even the decision to have the baby is similar: Sindhu simply says she wants it, while Manikandan is a mess of emotion. And subtextually, the rest of the film is about how – after Sindhu leaves him – he learns to live with the chaos of living. He learns to be as "let's just roll with it" as Sindhu. And that's why the film's ending makes complete sense. It just needs one realisation for Sindhu to do what she has to do. And it just needs that one line from her for Manikandan to do what he has to do.
Because so much of the relationship is so underplayed, and because there is no crude melodrama, the big moments really work. Dada breaks the cliché that looking at your child for the very first time is going to make you bounce around the room with tears of happiness. That may happen if you are ready for it, but Manikandan has a "oh damn, what do I do now!" look. Had the same scene played out with Sindhu, she would have instinctively picked up the child and cradled it on her chest. Later, when the child says "appa", you expect an outburst of emotion from Manikandan – but both the director and Kavin keep the moment small, subtle, real. I loved the gender-neutral idea of two clueless men – Manikandan and his friend Amit, played by an excellent Harish K – raising a child. The director could have gone overboard with the poopy-diaper cuteness, but he doesn't. He is not after misogynistic jabs, either. The only false notes in the first half – in a film so real – are the way Manikandan randomly gets a job, and again, equally randomly, gets another job. But I liked the takeaway tangential point that we may like to help others, and yet resent it when they become bigger than us. It's one of the many truly human touches in the screenplay, which treats its premise with respect and dignity.
But the second half is a big letdown. It's hard to say what really happened during the writing, but the tone changes completely and an utterly understated and real film begins to feel utterly contrived and cinematic and "commercial". We are basically waiting for the last 15 minutes (Aparna Das is amazing here), and until then, we are left with office colleagues doing the most childish things to reunite the leads. I hate it when two people live in the same city and yet conveniently avoid each other without a proper reason, and perhaps the couple's parents should have been utilised better. By the time we get to Manikandan getting drunk at an office party and doing a dance number, I'd almost given up. Why not use more of the Amit character – the rare male movie character who’s not embarrassed to say “I love you” to his male best friend? Okay, so Sindhu has a reason for the split, but after meeting her, would Manikandan not want an explanation for the things she does. Yes, ego does make certain conversations difficult, but then, why throw the couple together and keep delaying the inevitable?This is what I think happened. Maybe the makers realised they'd made too subtle a movie and decided to broaden it up – while still retaining bits of the subtlety from the first half. The character of Manikandan's son is beautifully sketched out. Even at his age, he is acutely aware that they are not rich, and when they have pizza, he wonders why he's getting such a "costly treat". Instead of showing sentimental scenes of Manikandan being a caring father, we see the kind of father he has been through his son. And it is so refreshing to see a Tamil film hero accepting that he made mistakes. This happens at the end, when we – thankfully – return to a real and understated film, where a single line is enough to wipe out years of misunderstanding. Dada is not perfect, but even with its imperfections it's a very impressive debut.