Sidhartha Siva's brilliant directorial debut '101 Chodyangal' is a profoundly poignant film that depicts the frenzied endeavors of a young boy to attain emotional attunement to the abysmal environment that he lives in. There is a sosphiscated simplicity to this heart wrenching piece, and the scoops of realist grandeur that the film maker has loaded it with, makes it a lyrical masterpiece.
Bokaro (Minon), a fifth grade student takes an instant liking to a new teacher (Indrajith) who has arrived at his school. Determined to make an impression on him, Bokaro requests his mother Sathi (Lena) to pack him lunch for a day, a request which she reluctantly gives in to, despite the miserable circumstances at home. She firmly puts her foot down when he requests her again the next day, and meets the teacher to express her inability to help.
The teacher is shaken to see that the family is in dire straits after Bokaro's dad Sivanandan (Murukan), was dismissed from the factory where he had been working for long. Having shifted to an abandoned shop from the staff quarters with her husband and two children, Sathi desperately tries to make both ends meet, while her husband plagued with ill-health hopes to reclaim his job.
The inquisitiveness that spurts out of Bokaro every now and then catches the teacher's fancy, who entrusts him with the task of charting out one hundred and one questions that spring up in his mind. He offers a remuneration of a rupee each for a question, and with one hundred and one rupees in sight, a beaming Bokaro agrees to get the job done in time.
Each question that Bokaro comes up with is soaked in his own bitter sweets experiences, and as the teacher precisely observes, has the faint fragrance of his life itself. He resolutely takes up the task of scribbling one question after the other in his note book, excitedly looking all around for questions that would fit the bill. The first question as to why the blue sky pulls over a drape of red occasionally is suggestively accompanied by the slogans of an employee strike.
More questions vigorously follow. The mayflies that have shed their wings after a night of frolic and fun catch his fancy, and so do the cicadas that dutifully sing in the darkness. The ripples that a stone sends across the still waters ebb into his mind as well, as does the spider that does not get caught in its own web. The gleaming eyes of a cat at night puzzle him, and he is intrigued by the bubbles that prop up without fail as the boiling water in the pot awaits a handful of rice.
His attempts to arrive at the answers to some of his questions meet a dead end. He is unable to comprehend why his differently abled sister has only answers and no questions. Surprisingly, the young soul has an incredible capability to make do with the limited comforts that life offers him. Glancing furtively at a neighbor's plate at a restaurant, he bites into a piece of cucumber imagining it to be a portion of meat.
The final question that he does not write down on the notebook is the one that rips your heart apart, and it takes a while to pull out those appended splinters that leave you bruised and bleeding all over. A dreadful helplessness gradually engulfs you as you realize that as in the case of many other queries, you do not have an answer to the kid's very last question.
The world that the boy moves around is one that if often bereft of bright colors, except for the orange tinted butterfly that decides to flutter in at the most unexpected moments. As he stands watching the sprawling town down below from the top of the hill, his eyes fail to see the shades that are painted on the tiny houses that appear garnished all over it. Instead, he increasingly grows obsessed over the unfairness that life has bestowed on him, and wonders aloud if things will ever change.
The real resonance of the tale arises out of the universality of its theme - that of the innocence of a child that is almost marred by the brutal intrusions of reality. Thrashing about in a flood of circumstances, he holds on to his waning faith time and again, gasping for breath, making us grateful for a childhood that was not haunted by desolation and gloom.
They say the most amazing of things come in small sizes, and Minon vouchsafes this fact. This astonishing child actor astounds you with a spellbinding performance that not for a moment, spills over into the melodramatic. Justly deserving every honor that has come his way, he is the soul of '101 Chodyangal', and sturdily carries the entire film across, on his petite shoulders.
Indrajith in the role of the teacher who understands, and who hopes to make a difference, is impressive. Another overwhelming performance from Lena and a strikingly notable feat by Murukan have to be specially mentioned. Nishanth Sagar, a grossly underestimated actor, leaves an impact in a key, supportive role.
To a world that complains of stiff pillows and sleeplessness, diets and slimming exercises, hair loss and fair skin treatments, cholesterol and junk food, emotional discontentment and mood swings, '101 Chodyangal' has a million questions to ask. The most pertinent of it would be one that concerns itself with an inability to come to terms with one's existence - often blissful in comparison to that of millions of less fortunate ones that struggle to survive every day, the world over.