A school teacher slaps a student who faints and goes into a coma, setting the stage for an emotional ordeal for everyone involved.
Kuttram Kadithal has a lot in common with this year's other release, Kaaka Muttai. As in that film, here, too, we have an isolated incident that, fuelled up by the media attention, gets blown up into a larger societal issue. But, while that film was a feel-good human drama that was content to gently satirise the issues of the society, Kuttram Kadithal makes no bones about the fact that it wants to start a social awakening. There are times when we even sense that the director is just ticking off the checkbox of issues that he wants to highlight — sex education in schools, corporal punishment, sensationalism in the media, faith and being human, et al — with characters talking directly to the audience. But the film is made with such conviction and there is sure-footedness in the storytelling that it hits you hard at several moments.
The film's director, Bramma takes his time to set up his characters. We are first introduced to the newlyweds Merlin (Radhika Prasidhha) and Manikandan (Sai Rajkumar), who behave like any other young couple. We see them sharing a cosy moment on the bed talking about how many kids they want and so on. And then we learn that their inter-religious marriage does not have her mother's — a hardcore Christian, who distributes pamphlets on the Lord and organizes religious gatherings at her home — blessings, and this has been worrying her. Next we see the school's principal (Kulothungan Udayakumar) and his wife (Durga Venugopal), who is a teacher in the same school, Udhayan (Pavel Navageethan), a fiery communist with a good heart (are there anything else, at least in the movies?) who believes in making the rich accountable for their mistakes, Cheziyan (a winsome Master Ajay), a charming brat and his auto driver mom (Sathya). We are introduced to the teachers at Merlin's school and through the lovely montage song, Kaalai Nila, Bramma skillfully establishes the worlds of these characters. We even get to see Manikandan's workplace and these places feel so lived in.
But then things turn tense when Merlin, substituting for another teacher, slaps Chezhiyan, in a moment of anger. The boy faints and is rushed to the hospital where the doctors tell them he has slipped in to coma. The principal realises Merlin cannot be squarely blamed for this incident and anticipating hostility, urges Merlin to leave the city with her husband for a while. Udhayan, who happens to be Cheziyan's uncle, wants justice for the kid and demands to speak to the teacher who hit his nephew. In the meantime, the media gets whiff of this incident and soon, becomes a sensation.
But what stops Kuttram Kadithal from reaching the lofty heights it aspires is the blatant manipulation towards the end. The scenes where Merlin goes missing and Manikandan is forced to search for her (and finds her by the railway track), the one where a reporter and her husband sit in a coffee shop and discuss the incident as if they are the thought bubbles of the audience, or the scene where the reporter tries to corner Chezhiyan's mother seem to belong in a different film with a different sensibility... The are also elements that stick out from the organic nature of the storytelling and seem affected... like a plastic bag that gets trapped in Merlin's feet, the overtly religious symbolism (a cross reflected on a rear view mirror), the presence of koothu dancers during a scene, a street performer whipping himself on the street as Merlin passes by. And even though we already care for these characters just as they are, Bramma decides to make them even more sympathetic by giving us their back stories to the tune of Bharathi's Chinnanchiru Kiliye. Imagine reading a book where most of the paragraphs are italicized, underscored or in all caps. That is how these portions make us feel.
Such missteps and excesses can be easily excused as first-time filmmaker's overeagerness in a film that is so lovingly crafted, and filled with moving performances and hard-hitting moments like when Merlin meets Chezhiyan's mother and seeks her pardon, or the one where she heroically admits to the press that her act of hitting the little boy was wrong, even if it hadn't been the cause for him slipping into a coma. You will be hard-pressed to see a more poignant scene this year as the superb one where the principal's wife reveals why they understand the pain of losing someone to a furious Udhayan.