‘Thalaikoothal’ movie review: Jayaprakash’s film on senicide is simply outstanding
When is one considered alive? Is it when they are fully functioning, physically and mentally, and are conscious of it? Or does it have more to do with the life force within us? What if someone is in a state of comatose, but their mind is alive with memories of the life they led? In Thalaikoothal, his most indulgent and extensive work to date, writer-director Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan fearlessly tells a compelling story about a man’s fight to save his comatose father, and through that, he lets us ponder over many of these questions.
Jayaprakash is in complete control of the narrative; Thalaikoothal has every signature element that his debut film Lens and his mumblecore film The Mosquito Philosophy had. His stories have psychological depth, his characters find themselves battling existential questions, and he dares to pick topics that we are all aware of but not told to. Lens was about the sheer inhumanity of pornography, while The Mosquito Philosophy explored the social stigma around late marriages. Thalaikoothal talks about senicide (the killing of the elderly), and while it is normal here to expect a story about a father-son relationship, Jayaprakash’s film grows to be more than that and we see the story through the eyes of the coma patient.
It’s the seamless and creative transitions that impress us first. Details of the setting (it’s a village in Thirunelveli) and the period of the film aren’t filled in. In the very first scene of the film, we see Pazhani (Samuthirakani) cleaning up his father Muthu (Kalaiselvan) before arguing with his wife Kalai (Vasundhara), who cannot take enough of the life that this unfortunate situation has been forcing her to lead.
In a matter of a few minutes, a lot is conveyed through dialogues, and information is drip-fed to the audience. Pazhani is tired of Kalai and her family’s request to euthanise his father for the betterment of the family’s financial situation (Pazhani is unable to get back to working). With growing debt tightening his neck, Pazhani holds onto his faith in his father and believes that things can get easier when his father comes back to normalcy.
On a parallel track, Muthu is subconsciously dreaming and remembering the life that he (Kathir plays the younger Muthu) led with his lover Pechi (Katha Nandi), a young woman from an oppressed caste. Love was what made Muthu feel alive, and it’s lovely how it is this love and its multiple complexities that drive the plot forward. For the entirety of its 160-minute duration, both these narratives travel, with the transitions and interconnections between them making for surreal visual imagery. For instance, Muthu, having heard subconsciously about the euthanasia method of repeatedly feeding tender coconut water, dreams of drowning in a pond of coconut water.
Interestingly, this screenplay structure that brings together surreal imagery and fact is one of the many similarities that this film shares with Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated 2022 feature, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Even there, it was a life on edge that looks back at some surreal memories, and the relationship that a man shares with his child and his father played a central role as well.
It is also truly commendable how, despite putting forward so many arguments from both sides, Thalaikoothal never takes a specific stand in the debate around euthanasia. It never antagonises Kalai and her family, despite Pazhani and Muthu being the protagonists who are literally fighting to save a life. She fights for her agency and inclusion in the decision-making of the family, and questions the blind hope that Pazhani has in his father’s recovery. If Pazhani has the right to question the ethics of what his wife proposes, she has the right to look after her own future, one in which she doesn’t have to fight for everyday survival. So, what, after all, is the solution? The way the film treads this is smart, given how there seems to be no solid answer to this debate especially when socio-economic factors are at play.
Thalaikoothal has a lot of ambiguity, and that works a lot in its favour. It’s lovely to see a filmmaker who takes his time to give just the right amount of information for the audience to build the story along with the storyteller. Jayaprakash also manages to bring out pulsating performances from his lead actors like Samuthrakani, Kathir, Kalaiselvan, and Vasundhara. But it is the sound designer of the film, Rajesh, who deserves the bigger piece of the cake. You wouldn’t believe it if someone said that this film was shot throughout using sync sound. Kannan Narayanan’s music only adds to the consistent tone of the film.
Probably, the only issue that might affect a less-informed audience is the length of the film. There is hardly any breather in this long film, and the sequences with infused magical realism have a chance of rubbing many the wrong way. However, in retrospect, there isn’t a single scene that doesn’t add value to the experience. There is plenty of symbolism, metaphors, and stunning visual imagery to even warrant a second watch.
Above all, watching Samuthirakani ace a role like this is an absolute treat.
Thalaikoothal is set to release in theatres on February 3