Director: Bharathi Lenin
Cast: Antony, Gayathri Krishna, Aaru Bala and Abu Velayudham
Merkku Thodarchi Malai (Western Ghats) by Bharathi Lenin is a classic piece of art on celluloid. The story of MTM is about simple people living at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu – Kerala border who work in the cardamom estates, their struggles, and the politics that surrounds them. Kudos to actor Vijay Sethupathi for bankrolling a meaningful film, despite the fact that MTM cannot be narrated as a script, but one has to feel and visualize it.
The film opens with the conversation between a mother and her son Rangasamy alias Rangu (Antony) about buying a piece of land and the latter wants to register it in his mom’s name. Rangu is a daily wage laborer who climbs up and down the hills near his village in the Idukki region. His daily chore, which commences at the wee hours, involve going up the mountain and bringing down loads of cardamom. Even as he starts his journey up the hill, we too are drawn in to it and travel along with him. On the way, he wakes up his friend who sleeps on the roadside with a plate of kesari bought from the teashop and takes him along. A stranger who is not quite used to climbing up and scared of wild elephants joins them, for he wants to invite a relative for his family wedding up the hill. Then there’s this old lady Kirukku Kizhavi (Pandiamma) who’s mentally deranged after her husband dies when a wild elephant attacks him in front of her eyes. And on their way everyone takes a cup of tea and snacks at the Adivaaram Paakkiyam (Sornam) teashop.
Once he climbs, we see Chako (Abu Velayudham), a communist cadre who toil for the rights of laborers, Kangaani (Antony Vaathiyar), the estate supervisor, and Ravi (Aaru Bala), the materialistic estate owner who cheats the workers and plays politics. Meanwhile, Rangu also marries his murai ponnu Eswari (Gayathri Krishna) and they have a son too. With the advent of government-sponsored developments and scheming politicians, Rangu eventually loses his land. And the film ends with a poignant note on how Rangu becomes the servant of his own land.
The entire first half is spent not only on establishing the characters, but Bharathi Lenin portrays the lifestyle of people of hilly terrains, their good and helping nature and how money becomes secondary when it comes to relationships.
Lenin’s apt casting of real life people from the areas of Kombai, Pannaipuram, Thevaram, Kudhirai Panjaan, Sathuranga Paaraiand Thalaiyangkaval where the movie has been shot contributes majorly to the lively narration. Having witnessed the struggles and trials of the workers from close quarters right from his childhood, Lenin has extracted the best out of them without any cinematic glorification.
Among the three known faces, Antony as Rangasamy has given a natural performance, Gayathri Krishna whom we saw as an activist in Joker, impresses. Aaru Bala as the greedy estate owner fits his part.
It is Theni Eswar’s mind-blowing cinematography that is the high-point of the movie. His breathtaking visuals take the story forward, capturing perfectly the vision of the director. Be it the bird’s eye view of the valleys or the changing climatic seasons, which adds up to the emotional quotient of the people or the movements up and down the hilly terrain, it is a visual splendor. Ilayaraja’s music is functional and just about adequate.
However, there are minor glitches. The director has totally done away with close-up shots, which reduce the impact of the scenes. Also, the deliberate slow pace lends to the feel of a documentary. Nevertheless, with several pluses, Merkku….is a path breaking honest attempt, which is not to be missed!...