Over the opening credits of Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan's new film – Thalaikoothal – we hear a woman screaming: Idhu enna veeda aaspathiri-ya? It's an entirely fair question. The woman's name is Kalai (Vasundhara), and her husband, Palani (Samuthirakani), seems to care more for his comatose father than his family, which includes a daughter. The most moving scene in the film is when Kalai runs into Palani outside their home, and looks guilty. Her father has just paid Palani a visit, and suggested that he kill the old man through the practice of thalaikoothal. Kalai, now, wants Palani to know this was not her idea. She is sick of her husband's devotion to his father, and she complains that he smells of the old man's piss and shit. But this, she would never ask him to do. Anybody who has tended to a sick relative will be able to empathise with Kalai at this point.
The film's title refers to a kind of euthanasia prevalent in villages, and it has been the theme of two earlier films. In Baaram, director Priya Krishnaswamy observed the proceedings from a distance, like a diligent reporter. She was interested in covering the practice and its effects on the parties involved, from family members to the practitioner who brings about this ghastly form of death. Madhumitha took a much lighter approach in KD Engira Karuppudurai. The film was serious enough to be about something, but it did not take itself seriously: it's one of the most fun, most buoyant movies made about death. Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan takes a new approach. He tells us a story from the viewpoint of Palani, which includes the man's endless attempts to reconcile the two parts of his life: his father and the rest of his family. The narrative also has a second story, which revolves around the memories of the comatose father: mainly his relationship with a young woman from an oppressed class. (These characters are played by Kathir and Katha Nandi.)
These flashbacks are huge deal-breakers. The directors earlier films – Lens and The Mosquito Philosophy – were savage and real and raw. He is very good in that zone. Here, he tries for that Bharathiraja-style "peacock feather" poetry, and it's hard to watch beyond a point – especially when things are so predictable, and especially when the transitions between the past and the present involve bizarre visual effects that are once surreal and too literal. I was more interested in the character played by Aadukalam Murugadoss, whose wife wants a child. The ending to his character arc is unexpected and… yes, savage and real and raw. It's a strong statement of individuality, and a brilliant contrast with Palani's decision to dedicate his life to others, despite his own poverty. Samuthirakani is one of our best actors, but even he cannot find many shades to the one-dimensional martyr he's asked to play.
The dialogues are very direct. When a young Palani is caught trying to kill a reptile, his father tells him gently: Ulagathukku thaana vandha usuru thaana thaan poganum. This is not a line, but the film's thesis statement. By the end, what we are left with is an idea of what the film could have been: a reminder that life is filled with regrets, and the older we get, the more we are haunted by memories of unresolved issues from the past. The sentimental Palani is surely going to end up like his father, thinking about the many things he could have done differently – but in the present, he is stuck in a stagy story that progresses without surprises and whose attempts at emotion stay at an arm's length. Given the theme at the core, you expect more power, more passion. It's a matter of life and death. It should have had more… soul.