Merku Thodarchi Malai opens with Rangaswamy waking up to dense rain. Unperturbed, he uses the rainwater to wash his face and begins his day nonchalantly. A habit chain is set into motion — he greets everyone as they pass by, stops by for his usual glass of tea, breakfast. He is called ‘Semakaran’ (the accent is a tad tough to follow) which I am guessing is an iteration of ‘Sumaikaran’ (load bearer). His job is to carry sacks of elaichi down the hill. That’s not it though, he acts as a messenger as well, picking up messages and other things that need to be delivered. His routine takes him through several hamlets, but everyone knows him, and he knows everybody. In fact, everyone knows everyone. The hills don’t seem to isolate the folk, unlike our concrete structures where we barely know our neighbours.
Lenin invests quite some screen time in making us understand this ecosphere, the dreams, and aspirations that populate this part of the world. He uses several minutes initially to convey a few days of activities and later, covers years in a few minutes. A land of labourers and farmers, their wishes are simple: to own a piece of land, get their son/daughter married, work and get paid for it. It is a lifestyle that literally has nature in the centre – where trees are lord and stones are offerings. “Why are you scared of elephants?” asks an elderly villager to a passing visitor. “If we don’t disturb them, they don’t harm us. It is us who have taken their space. They aren’t like humans to change their routes often,” explains the old man. However, the nature they worship isn’t kind to them all the time. Ambitions are dampened by rains and squashed by wild elephants, but life moves on. It is an inclusive ecosphere with a lot of give-and-take. Lenin graphically captures this with several sub-stories cogently intertwined into one breathing organism that is Merku Thodarchi Malai.
Ironically, the lack of melodramatic pathos in Merku Thodarchi Malai is its most dramatic tool. It is the story of people who were forgotten or left behind in our endeavour to ‘grow’. What is development and who are the beneficiaries? If this growth isn’t inclusive, is it growth at all? The film talks about communism and the times it has failed, capitalism and the lives it has ruined. A small-time farmer shifts to selling seeds and manure and ends up diversifying into several agro-finance businesses while another farmer loses his land and ends up as a ‘watchman’ to all this growth. Lenin doesn’t point fingers. No lengthy, single-take shots that talk about what ails the farmer either. He quietly bares it all and lets us ponder over the questions.
Merku Thodarchi Malai has been shot exquisitely — Theni Easwar’s lens captures the hills in all its glory. The camera often zooms out into aerial shots, as if to remind how minuscule we are in front of nature. Maybe, to jog the memories of the larger world about these tiny groups tucked away in the folds of nature, whose livelihoods seem to have been considered as ‘collateral damage’ for ‘greater good’. Easwar’s camera is skillfully honest, similar to Ilaiyaraaja’s minimalistic background score. I don’t remember anyone else capture death so poignantly, on the go, with not much musical manipulation. But the frames haunt us. These characters almost seem to surrender to what had fuelled their life — nature, money and faith.
A fair word of caution. Merku Thodarchi Malai is an honest portrayal of a livelihood that has begun to become extinct. Lenin’s honesty translates into no-frill cinema — it doesn’t go out of its way to ‘entertain’ you. There is no forced humour, no exaggerated drama, not much action, no duet songs. I am thankful to Vijay Sethupathi, the producer, for not compromising to market pressure and letting the film take the open, invested mind on an enriching journey. It is an experience meant to be watched on the big screen.