Aramm: A powerful story that doesn’t flinch from asking tough questions

It’s commonplace for Tamil films that are scathing of the government to also shoot a round or two at the media. But Gopi Nainar doesn’t bite. Sure, he shows them as nosy and being obstructive, but he prefers instead to focus on how he can utilise the media to make his points in the film. A big part of Aramm, in fact, is a talk show whose panellists make the sort of preachy points that would’ve rung too fake had it been uttered by one of the main characters. Perhaps the weakest stretch of the film, for this reason, is when the collector, Mathivadhani (Nayanthara), tries to convince a boy into risking his life by telling him about her own inspirational story. Her idea of a pep talk is to tell the boy that his name could get potentially get etched in the country’s history. From my experience though, children care less about the country than they do about candy. Otherwise, Aramm shows admirable resistance to exaggerating for effect. It’s a relief because there’s no place for hyperbole in a story whose people are so real.

Aramm
Director: Gopi Nainar
Cast: Nayanthara, Ramachandran Durairaj, Sunu Lakshmi, Vignesh, Ramesh

A naïve little girl, looking at her balloon in the sky, falls into an open borewell (I’d be surprised if this weren’t a metaphor). You’ve got her parents (Ramachandran Durairaj and Sunu Lakshmi, who’re perfect for their parts), who are too grief-stricken to utter one coherent sentence. It’s quite affecting how every time they try to talk, they can only muster whimpers of agony. You’ve got the policemen, who are discomfited by the whole situation and deeply angered by what they deem to be the disrespect of villagers. You’ve got the enraged villagers, who have just had it with the inefficiency of the government. You’ve got the politicians — the councillor who’s absconding, the MLA who’s worried sick about his reputation, the minister, who’s more worried about grooming his hair than about this incident. You also have the Kaaka Muttai kids, Vignesh and Ramesh, playing the brothers of the girl. While the elder son is flavour, the younger son is more than just the brother of the victim. He’s also a budding swimmer. The father himself was a Kabaddi player before circumstances put paid to his passion. These details sharpen their characters. And finally, you’ve got the government authority in the crosshairs, the collector Mathivadhani. Nayanthara’s presence does so much to this film. She doesn’t get to showboat too much, and the main portions where the camera pays obeisance are relegated to the very end.

All Mathi wants to do is the right thing, but it isn’t easy. What is the right thing anyway? Policemen want to keep her safe — one shot of a JCB machine, a government vehicle, lifting her out of danger is telling. The National Disaster Response team thinks it’s best to sacrifice the girl if it means the safety of many others. Mathi, however, has a conscience, and can’t live in peace if she hasn’t done everything she can to save the girl. This includes potentially placing into harm’s way, another child. In that sense, she’s less an impassive bureaucrat than an emotional leader of the people. She almost hints that democracy’s elected leaders are under the impression that they’re owners, and the people, their slaves. You don’t begrudge her the point.

Even the fringe characters of Aramm make an impact. The drunk villager who sarcastically asks the officials to take good care of their machines. The rebel villager who suggests that the villagefolk take matters into their own hands. When one official cites the remote location of the village as a reason for the delay in the arrival of help, he retorts, “Vote kettu varum bodhu indha dhooram theriyaliye.” Even a character that’s not shown — a student whose robot could have helped in the rescue mission — stays in your mind. Applause rang in the theatre when one villager asks, “Why are cricketers and cinema stars glorified while these inventors, the real heroes, are ignored?” The film asks quite a few tough questions, and they feel tougher, given how the story isn’t diluted by songs and needless diversions. A panellist in a TV discussion asks why a crime in New Delhi or Chennai gets so much attention, while such crimes, despite being the norm in interior Tamil Nadu, never grab the headlines. If this were a Shankar film, you’d get a cartoon of a wrecking bar piercing a politician’s tongue.

This hapless-girl-falls-into-borewell incident is powerfully contrasted with a rocket launch mission of the government. A life sinks, an object rises. This idea is resonated when Mathi asks why they don’t send in another child to rescue this girl, in the absence of the robot. “But robot-ku uyir illiye madam.” The poor get suppressed, and this is suggested literally, when the NDR chief forcibly attempts to stop the girl’s father from wailing, even as Mathi tries to talk to her. In another scene, a government official asks the parents of the girl to calm down, worried that the media, prowling nearby, could create bad press for the government. A living, breathing girl is on the verge of death, but this government servant cares only about his job. There’s a lingering sense of guilt on the faces of most of these government employees, every time Mathi asks them a tough question. Their heads hang down in shame, but it seems they are too entrenched in the system to feel emotionally about the impact of their jobs any more. Mathi doesn’t get this. She just isn’t wired that way.

Aramm also manages to punctuate its story with another problem — water scarcity. You’re constantly noticing how the rich get by just fine, while the poor remain thirsty and parched. The TV panellists have glasses full of water. The collector, Mathi, has a mineral water bottle at arm’s length, but all the villagers get to drink is salt water. Perhaps the plan is to further analyse this issue in a sequel, and there could well be one, given how Mathi seems to be considering a different career at the end, which she thinks will be less restrictive of her desire to do good for the people. That’ll be a different beast altogether as she will realise, but if it makes for another powerful film, count me in.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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