Ammani — a genuine voice in Tamil Cinema

I liked Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Nerungi Vaa Muthamidathe and wrote this about it.

Today I watched her third film Ammani, which was surprisingly screened here in Singapore. However, what wasn’t surprising, was that there were only 5 people in the theatre, including me. And one of them was the ticket counter guy himself.

“The film is really good” he said to me later, as we walked out after the show, “It opened yesterday and we had three shows. They were all empty. So I thought I’ll check it out today. But, it’s really good film.”

“And that’s why the theatre is empty!” I wanted to say but curbed my urge. This interview later told me that Lakshmy herself knows it too. She’s very well aware of how many people are going to turn up for such films and it’s been taken into account while planning the film’s budget. So yeah, I’m not going to brood that “Oh I wish this film had been a hit!” Because many years later, whether this film became a hit or flop simply won’t matter. What’s going to ultimately matter is that a good film got made.

Absolute disregard for staple Tamil cinema elements

It was definitely refreshing to watch Ammani. There’s no romantic angle and guy running behind girl etc. There’s no comedian to ease us in our seats with his “antics”. There’s no megaphone that’s picked up through which societal messages are shoved down our throats. It’s a good, solid film which doesn’t get diverted from its point of focus — to take us through Salamma’s journey of realizing who her family really is.

The little things

The mother sleeps on the floor outside the door of the house. The auto driver son comes home and hesitates a moment to step over his mother to enter the house. The mother wakes up in the process and says something like “You? Just go!” and moves her feet away, making way for him. This is the first scene in which the auto driver is introduced to us, but it clearly establishes the dynamics between mother and son. And it’s only in such cramped houses that you’ll get scenes like this.

The family’s idea of celebration is going to the beach. The drunkard elder son dreams of buying his mother a simple cot. The whack that Salamma gives to her granddaughter, who’s watching television without studying (with us, the audience, being aware that the whack was meant for her son). The orange that Salamma gives to Ammani from the marriage bag (What do you call the bag with fruits and betel leaves that’s given when you leave a marriage?) The sweaty shirt of Salamma’s supervisor at the non-air-conditioned government hospital.

It’s such little things that bring the movie closer to you. It makes you feel like you can reach out and touch these characters.

The visual symbolism

Flies sitting on a mango, winged termites buzzing around street lamps and crows perilously perched on railway electric cables. There’s no shortage of symbolic shots in this film. Salamma and her family members are like those crows. Sitting perched atop a brittle foundation and figuring out how to make ends meet. And the trains themselves symbolise life and how it keeps going on mercilessly, not caring for anyone but its own progress.

Ammani & my grandmother

I bet that when you watch this film you’ll want to see more of Ammani. Had she overplayed a little bit more, it would have fallen flat. She’s so endearing that towards the end of this film, you begin to send prayers to the God behind the camera, that he (she, in this case) shouldn’t unleash any torture upon her and turn this into a Bala film. Be it her choice of blouse and cotton sarees, be it her strong will to stand on her feet no matter what, her habit of combing her hair while looking into a mirror and involuntarily breaking into a song or the habit of keeping all her money stuffed in small notes within a cloth bag. It’s all my grandmother! And that made me love the film even more. Nobody has shown these aspects of my grandmother on screen before. And art is all about telling stories of people whose stories haven’t been told. (Of course, there’s a lot more to my grandmother that’s not here. That’s probably a film for me to make!)

And this song by Vaicom Vijayalakshmi surely sums up the character of Ammani for us! “There’s no rain. There’s no heat. Yet, I see a rainbow, Ammani. There’s no flower. There’s no breeze. Yet, I smell flowers, Ammani.”

Playing a simpleton

This is actually quite a challenge for an actor. We all do know that in real life Lakshmy Ramakrishnan is a smart woman. And so it’s all the more challenging for someone like her to play a character who proudly proclaims, “I have two sons! I have nothing to worry!” and then dreams of the kind of celebrations her funeral procession will have. But then, if I were to nitpick, I felt she overdid the simpleton nature of the character in some places. A bit like Nasser in Irudhi Suttru. Like the scene in which she boasts to her colleagues about a phone she bought her granddaughter. You need to make the character memorable and at the same time seem commonplace. It’s a tightrope walk. Oh but, I loved the way she actually walks. There are several shots of her, carrying a bag in her hand and hobbling through the traffic-filled streets of Chennai. As she leaves for home, a nurse passing by asks, “Enna Salamma? Kelambiteengala?” You know it’s regular mundane stuff. But, it’s things like this that make you exclaim, “Hey! That’s how people talk! That’s how people walk!”

Genuine

This is the word that kept coming up in my mind throughout the film. When a Sasikumar makes an Easan or a Samuthirakani makes a Nimirndhu Nil, there’s a certain undefinable unease that you feel. Something that makes you doubt the director’s true intentions. But, in this film, there’s no doubt. You can sense in every frame that this is a genuine attempt. This film has been crafted with the sole aim of telling us the stories of Ammani and Salamma. And making us reflect on our behaviour and our interactions with people like them in our own lives. I loved what Lakshmy said in this interview — how Salamma is based on a real character she came to know through her TV show, and how the family didn’t have a photo of hers and that she gave her a face! Seeing such sensitivity, I feel sorry that she’s been reduced to a caricature in some circles with a single line she uttered in some TV show. She’s a director whose fourth film I’ll definitely watch out for!

Oh and that Yaman Dance with Robo Shankar

Simply. Brilliant.