There’s a tracking shot in Oru Naal Koothu, not long, that takes place inside a temple as part of one of the film’s several scenes involving its primary characters trying to meet someone and eventually get married. True to its title (and how good is that!) the film deals with the process that leads to this one day event, supposedly a watershed moment in everyone’s lives. If you want to know how well this is done thematically, knock yourself out with @equanimus’s notes (the whole thread), excellent and to the point as always.
Bhaskar and Susheela (Rythvika), and their families, meet at the temple. As they talk to get to know each other – within minutes – away from the throbbing attention of their families, we see them take a walk around the temple. Nelson tracks them gradually making the round, with Bhaskar attempting small talk about Susheela being a Radio Jockey and yet quite reserved. We lose them soon as they make a turn and the focus shifts to Susheela’s brother Raghavendran (Karunakaran), his older friend Benjamin (Charlie), the marriage broker and Bhaskar’s uncle, walking behind the couple. It is a sausage-fest. Raghavendran is unmarried because he is waiting for his sister to get married first. Benjamin is a bachelor, destined to be unmarried but brings up the subject all the time, sometimes casually and sometimes wistfully. They joke about the uncle’s profession – a masseuse (including an unexpected pun on Nuru Massage!). They joke about Benjamin’s non-existent wife. All their lives revolve around this topic even as they make a revolution around the temple. We lose them at the second turn, as the camera catches up with Bhaskar and Susheela in their second round of talks. Bhaskar is more at ease now and gets to his point right away – which is that he’s already judged Susheela for having a job in the media. Susheela is no timid Lakshmi (Mia George as the girl from a small town, in the other thread of Oru Naal Koothu). She can give it back and she does so in the coolest way imaginable. A teachable moment grabbed with aplomb. This is not new to her. She’s met several men through the matrimonial process and suffered several rejections. In short, Susheela’s, her family’s and Benjamin’s lives are all going in circles. Nelson Venkatesan, in one shot, makes it clear that he’s not just good with content but with the filmmaking too.
The other idea in Oru Naal Koothu is more obvious but captures the inherent sexism and patriarchy in the process quite well. There is Lakshmi, whose biggest roadblock is her own father. And we have Bhaskar again who browses through photos of Susheela, still undecided and finally wants to call off the wedding. What’s Bhaskar’s profession? He is a car salesman! That thing you go look at, find how sparkly finished it is and decide to buy. Almost three decades ago, in Kamal Haasan’s Aboorva Sagodharargal, Vaali wrote these lines:
kannipponna nenachu car a thodanum
kattinavan veralthan mela padanum
kandavanga edutha kettu poyidum
akku akka azhagu vittu poyidum
thiramaiyellam avan kaatidanum
or idathil uruvaagi, ver idathil vilai pogum
car-galaipol penn innamum, kondavanai poi serum
While the comparison itself is regressive, I remember someone (this guy) saying that in the last two lines Vaali is sighing at the sanctioned commodification of women, that is very much apparent in the institution of marriage. Why write vilai pogum otherwise? These are conflicts in Oru Naal Koothu too, a film from 2016 and it is not a surprise. That is probably what informed Nelson to make Bhaskar, possibly the most judgemental character in the film, a car salesman. These are just two touches in a film that is impressive throughout, save for the last ten minutes. It’s a wonder that Nelson Venkatesan’s Oru Naal Koothu has so many things going for it but will end up as the most under-discussed film of the year.