Cast: Mahesh, Anjali, A. Venkatesh, Pandi and Sneha
Vasanthabalan’s Angadi Theru (Marketplace) is yet another attempt by Tamil cinema to tackle pressing social problems. While the director’s 2006 “Veyil” (Sunlight) was a personal, intimate study of a small town family, his latest film steps out of home and hearth to take us to a sprawling metro. Much of the story unfolds in a marketplace (actually Chennai’s Ranganathan Street in T. Nagar), maddeningly crowded and emotionally brutalising.
A school topper, Jothilingam (debutant Mahesh), has to crush his dream of becoming an engineer when his mason father is killed in an accident. Like hundreds of other boys and girls barely out of their teens, Jothilingam leaves his village in interior Tamil Nadu and takes up a job as a salesman in a swanky multi-storied showroom in Chennai. He finds yet another dream of earning a decent wage and living honourably being shattered when he is treated like a bonded labourer.
Herded with tens of others in a sleeping room that resembles a cattle-shed, fed on unpalatable food served from giant cauldrons by filthy-looking men and literally whipped into working painfully long hours, he is not even allowed to talk to a salesgirl, let alone fall in love. When a girl is caught writing a love letter to her co-worker, the floor supervisor, Karungali (A. Venkatesh), disgraces her and drives her to jump off the shop. At other times, he bashes up boys who fail to slave or molests girls behind a curtained enclosure. Kani (Anjali) is roughed up and pawed when she is drawn towards Jothilingam. Eventually pushed out by Karungali’s sadism and viciousness that the dhoti-clad, Mercedes Benz-owning showroom proprietor, Annachi, coldly ignores, Jothilingam and Kani land on the street, where still greater misfortune and misery lie.
The movie is intensely disturbing, and a very bold effort by the helmer to document a notorious social practice, overlooked by a corrupt administration, which in the film lives off the money doled out by Annachi. Equally daring is the lead pair: Anjali and Mahesh are willing to look ugly, their bruised faces and dirty clothes adding to the authenticity of their tragic roles.
Vasanthabalan tries to add a bit of white to his stark black screen by allowing Jothilingam’s buddy, Marimuthu (Pandi), to deliver wit, and first-time cinematographer Richard M. Nathan to play with some alluring night shots of a rain-drenched city. Yet, at the end of it all, “Angadi Theru”, remains annoyingly depressing. The greys, if all there are any, hardly show, particularly in the way Vasanthabalan conceives some of his characters. Karungali with his violence and apparent sexual frustration is angularly dark. Annachi is as sinister, and these two men give little chance for the movie to rise from the murky crevice it sinks into. “Angadi Theru” remains uncomfortably gloomy, despite a feeble shot at portraying human resilience and hope.