Connoisseurs of good cinema finally have something to celebrate. Mohan Raghavan's T D Dasan Standard VI B offers a rare combination of subtlety and skillfulness in an affecting drama that's undoubtedly one of the best films that have come out in Malayalam in recent times.
Dasan (Alexander) is a young boy in the sixth grade who lives with his mother Chandrika (Shwetha Menon) in a hilly village in Palakkad where the sky almost meets the earth. Chandrika works at a local matchstick factory and strives hard to make both ends meet. Dasan dreams of meeting his father Raghavan, who had deserted them when he was barely an year old, and who had disappeared into a busy city leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves.
The boy who accidentally comes across an old address in his mother's cloth box, sends a letter to his dad and keenly waits for a reply. Dasan and his words find their way into the letter box at Keystone Villa in Bangalore, where Ammu (Tina Rose), an eighth grader lives with her dad Nandakumar (Biju Menon), who is an ad maker. Ammu, who is much moved by the young boy's quest replies to him and reluctantly takes up the role of his father.
Ammu's letter reaches a land of legends and mysteries where palm trees rustle against each other in the hot wind. We are told that they used to gently bow down before the climber long back and somewhere along the past stopped doing so, when the climber's wife turned adulterous. Dasan isn't sure as to what infidelity is, but he keeps hoping against hope that his mother hasn't done something wrong. Something that has brought a curse on them, and that has kept his father away.
The boy's life gets sprinkled with fresh spurts of color as he rushes back home with the letter in his quivering hands. The disarming sincerity of his feelings start lending a new life to the broken framed photograph of his parents that had started to wither away with time. The emotional richness that refreshes his life is splattered in vibrant hues on a kite that he flies and that surges upward in a fresh gust of wind.
The gentle social commentary that runs throughout the film has to be lauded for not being for even a moment pushy. The coexistence of several worlds that are as diverse from each other as they possibly could be, is a reality that has always been there. But there are very few instances when they are placed adjacent to each other so that the ignorance of one world regarding the existence of the other becomes strikingly apparent.
So we have Ammu trying to beat that seemingly heroic record that Dasan has managed to procure by remaining under water for fifty six seconds in the village pond. Her attempts in the bath tub never bear fruit, but try she does. Much later, we get to see her again speeding to Dasan's village in her car, gulping down a nameless drink, never realizing that she's about to tread on a land that has been ruined beyond repair on account of a multinational soft drink giant that had set up its base there.
She knows nothing of what it is to live on a land that has been ravaged by human greed. Her intentions work on a different plane altogether, where she nurtures that flame of compassion for a boy whom she had never seen, but who has become an integral part of her life. Denial of rights and human displacement do not interest her at the moment, more individual and personal issues do.
Dasan too has little time to spare for reconstructing the planet that is fast crumbling. Everything else around him get reduced to minuscule proportions as he basks in the ecstasy of having received a letter from his dad. He does take part in the human chain in support of the protest against the soft drink plant, and says that it was 'fun'. He goes green as well, and carefully plants the Ilanji
tree that he has been entrusted with, as part of the Ente Maram
project at school on the front yard. But a moment later, when his more immediate world is threatened by an axe that gets set to fell a mango tree that his father had planted, Dasan springs to its defence with a startling fierceness.
There is another little surprise that Mohan Raghavan has in store for us, and this is in the way in which he experiments with possible options within the story itself. He does so by letting Nandakumar indulge in story discussions with his friends and exploring diverse ways in which the story would have progressed had the letter from the boy landed elsewhere. The frame shrinks down all on a sudden as the director dabbles with myth and fantasy only to be restored soon, as the narrative switches back to reality.
We live in dreadful times and the depression - be it environmental, financial or personal - often is nerve wracking (I wish I was half as optimistic as the filmmaker himself!). With the collective fears about instability lurking about in the background, it is astonishing that the film holds on to an exuberance that is bright and quite intense. Without a second thought, Nandakumar dismisses an alternative to Dasan's story when someone attempts to portray Raghavan as an activist who was gunned down in a police ecncounter. He affirms that a lack of hope and negativism would prove destructive to the plot.
The unusual vistas of experience that the two leading characters go through lead to an overlapping of their destinies in unexpected ways. The night lights of Bangalore and the buzz of the air planes whizzing by are a far cry from the parched fields of Palakkad and its rugged terrains. While Ammu complains of her burned toast in the morning, Dasan is overjoyed by his grand mom's promise that she would buy him some dried fish for lunch the next day.
There are several questions that Mohan Raghavan throws on us; several loose ends that have been purposefully left loose. Raghavan's story is one such tale that toys with our emotions for a while, and the conclusion that is finally drawn up is never satisfactory. We try to come to terms with it almost against our will, and wish that it was not as it seems. This dilemma forces us to come up with stories of our own, and it is here that we are devastated by what happens to Chandrika. It is at this point when the questions persist that we are forced to rewrite her story all over again.
I am amazed at the way almost all the characters are etched out in precise terms, with absolutely no compromise. It's not just Dasan and Ammu who occupy pertinent corners of our heart, but almost everyone in the film including Dasan's adversary Thomaskutty, the warm and affectionate Muthiamma (Valsala Menon), Balan Master (Mala Aravindan) or the benevolent neighbor Ramankutty (Suresh Krishna) find a place.
The performances are as sunny as they get. The two children Alexander and Tina Rose deliver heart wrenching acts as Dasan and Ammu, and it's thanks to them that the story turns out to be even more poignant. Shwetha seems to be getting better with each film, and as the highly aggressive Chandrika she lives the role of the single parent, and more of a single woman with an outstanding charm. The defensiveness, the insecurity and the self-preservation are all safe in her hands. Biju Menon is remarkably restrained in a role that demands him to be so.
Mohan Raghavan's debut film matches up in texture, dimension and depth to the wonderfully crafted films of Walter Salles that often transcend boundaries. This is the work of an artist who refuses to see the medium as a mere commodity, and the highly sensitive writing and truly marvelous direction make this film a captivating watch.