How did a film like Seethakathi even get funded in the first place? The story lends itself to a kind of dryly comic narrative (Isaac Asimov’s One Night of Song comes to mind), but here’s the thing: the contemplative mood that permeates much of the film is not the one you might imagine while hearing it.
The first 40 minutes are so sedate, so quietly affecting in their depiction of an ageing theatre actor’s life, that you wonder if you just stumbled into a Balu Mahendra feature. (Archana’s presence as his wife helps.) There’s a moment when Ayya Aadhimoolam, the aforementioned artiste, returns home by auto after a stage performance that only a handful of people have attended, and passes by some youths watching something on their mobile phone. The film just shows him observing them, but the earlier scenes have made his reaction unnecessary. Watching this film on the Prime app on my phone, I felt vaguely guilty when that scene played out. Lovely.
Even when the film goes on to take a slightly supernatural turn, the elegiac tone doesn’t change. If at all it morphs from a Balu Mahendra film, it is into an M Night Shyamalan one.
And then, when you least expect it, the film finds a funny bone. A film shoot in a park goes horribly, hilariously wrong. That Balaji Tharaneetharan has a deft comic touch has been evident from his debut feature, but this sudden shifting of gears is, well, startling.
There’s obvious comedy featuring some of the best bad acting I have seen in a while, but the straight guy in the scene plays it so beautifully straight that his performance becomes a stand-in for the movie it has been so far. It feels as though the humour is somehow finding a way to bubble up through the layer of sombre contemplation that the film has wreathed itself in. The effect on the viewer is unexpectedly cathartic.
It goes on a bit too long, and there’s a similar sequence later on where you really wish they’d get on with it, but this is, to be honest, a minor quibble. I still found myself laughing both times.
And then, even more amazingly, the film turns into a sort of satire on the prevalent state of cinema, our tendency to worship our stars, and our rigid notions of what the A, B and C centres want to see. While it appears a bit preachy at times, the script finds room for nuance. Even the stereotypical I-want-every-cliche-in-my-film producer is not depicted in an entirely unsympathetic manner – he is simply a man who has invested a lot of money in the film and cannot afford to deal with an actor who refuses to turn up. The notion of cinema as a collective, as well as commercial, art is driven home in more ways than one.
Perhaps the film’s most interesting reading, for me, comes from a meta perspective. Here’s a mostly well-reviewed venture featuring a great actor who loomed over the film’s promotions in much the same way that his character looms over the story it tells. It enjoyed but a modest run at the box office, and yet, soon after its release on Prime video, I find a slew of complimentary posts about it on my Facebook timeline.
Seethakathi lives on.