Film Review: Oraalppokkam (Six Feet High), 2014
S.K. Sasidharan's film has an unusual depth and honesty for a debut.
Mahendran (Prakash Bare) and Maya (Meena Kandasamy) split after living together for five years. Mahendran is the sort of person who has no qualms accepting that he is sexually attracted to another woman while he is committed to one. His idea is that in a live-in relationship the level of loyalty is flexible and his partner should allow him the freedom to pursue other women.
Maya does not agree with this and their argument escalates resulting in break-up.
Mahendra is now free to do what he wants, but he soon realizes that something is missing. One night, while moping in a bar, he gets an unexpected call from Maya telling him that she is in Uttarakhand. He is rude to her and tells her that he had actually deleted her number.
The next morning he wakes up to the news that Kedarnath, a holy city in Uttarakhand, has been all but decimated because of floods.
This piece of news sends Mahendra on a journey to find Maya. Or is it?
But things are more complicated here. He doesn't immediately pack his bag and rushes like a hero to save the day. The film explores the psychological unraveling of the man. Almost every scene reveals something new about him. His evasiveness to address the possibility that the only woman that he (probably) loved is dead or maybe in need of help, reveals him to us and to himself too.
Sasidharan juxtaposes an inner crisis with a real external of the Uttarakhand floods tragedy to find that they both lie in ruins. Both, the internal and the external, are as empty as that pedestal from which the idol of Shiva was carried away by raging waters. But any search is a sign of hope and belief.
Mahendra's leads to many dead ends. One at a sex worker's house who looks exactly like Maya. But Mahendra cannot deal with this idea of corruption and resumes his search again.
On one level, the film is also about the trap of masculinity and the resulting circumstances the failure to fulfill the masculine responsibilities and the expectation that people will have from a male. These go beyond sexual. Mahendra is a success with women and "he does what he wants". But at the same time, there is also an onus on him to protect.
In this aspect, Oraalppokkum reminded me of the excellent Swedish film Force Majeure, (remade as Downhill in Hollywood recently), where a man's first instinct is to run away in an avalanche, instead of protecting his wife and child. This incident becomes the litmus test for the marriage and the couple is forced to examine their roles. In this film, Mahendra does not really have to answer anyone for his inaction in attempting to go to Maya, hence his purpose becomes more independent and maybe, even worthier. He only has himself to answer to which is what true introspection is about.
He does eventually drive to Uttarakhand, but it soon becomes clear that this journey is not just to find Maya but also himself. Who is he as a person? His shirt, which Maya used to clean his house with, becomes a symbol of his soul Sometimes he is able to grasp it but mostly it stays elusive.
This is a crowdfunded film but it rises above its budgetary constraints. It is gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Indrajit capturing the natural beauty of the mountains and the devastation with the same calmness and confidence. As the narrative dissolves, like Mahendra's ego, the scenes achieve a strange transcendental quality. They mine our Sufi and Bhakti and Buddhist traditions to look inward and finding oneself.
Prakash Bare creates a believable character in Mahendra. We empathize with him even with all his flaws. Or maybe because of them. Meena Kandasani (a poet and author making her acting debut) exudes confidence.
On the whole, this is a bleak film. The sadhus seem to have given up on the world too. They talk about the environmental destruction that man has caused before they disappear in caves. It is as if the Aristotelian knowledge has made a conscious decision to withdraw back to where it came from.
But Oraalppokkum derives its hope from showcasing the possibilities that are still alive for independent cinema and artists to express themselves without reservation.
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