This is not a movie for the fainthearted. Angadi Theru is disturbing in parts, heartbreaking in others and often deeply depressing. But it’s also genuinely funny, unexpectedly touching, and in the end, an ode to the resilience of human beings. That makes this more than just another despondent tough-luck movie, or another preachy testament to how crappy the world can be to the impoverished. That makes this an incredibly realistic, hard-hitting and ultimately, very powerful movie. As someone who has frequently thrown up her hands in despair over the current state of Tamil cinema, I have to applaud director Vasantha Balan for this effort.
Angadi Theru essentially tells the story of Jothilingam (new comer Mahesh… not bad, but not spectacular either), a young man who comes from a village in the Thirunelveli District. He’s come first in his school in 12th standard — he’s a bright boy and his father has big dreams of his son going to college and escaping the sort of life of drudgery he’s lead himself. But when the father dies in an awful road accident (one of the many times this movie will make the more sensitive in the audience flinch and want to cover their eyes), the young man has to give up plans of college and provide for his two young sisters and his mother instead. Enter the guys from Senthil Murugan Stores, who’re hiring young men and women to work for them in Chennai, and our hero and his tubby, goofy friend (who serves to provide wonderful — and much needed — comic relief) find themselves transported from their idyllic village to the chaotic mass of humanity that is Ranganathan Street, T.Nagar.
Now Senthil Murugan stores is quite obviously a thinly-veiled reference to Saravana Stores (right down to its ads featuring actress Sneha and its owner being mired in court cases and such). And what makes the following chunk of the film fascinating is that it gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the way such stores treat their employees. In a chilling scene, we’re shown how these men and women are chosen carefully based on how hard up they are for cash and how dependent their family is on them for income, and then we see through Jothilingam’s eyes the almost dehumanising conditions in which they have to live and eat in, and the sort of taskmasters they have to deal with on the shop floor.
At this stage, you’re totally prepared for the movie to become a horrific tale of cruelty and suffering, with some preaching thrown in about big, bad, mean businessmen and all of that. But Angadi… surprises you by introducing relationships and friendships and laughter instead, showing indirectly how Jothilingam and his friend learn to adjust, to settle into even so oppressive a life in the way only, perhaps, the young can. Yes, there is the love angle (yeah, I rolled my eyes too) as our hero falls in love in Kani (played with pleasing simplicity by Anjali), a spirited young sales girl on the third floor (the much-coveted a/c floor). There’s the usual hate-at-first-sight turning to love theme, but the movie does a good job of crafting a convincing relationship thereafter. It begins as plain infatuation, but becomes something much deeper; there are no empty declarations or artificially constructed misunderstandings, just a genuine growth in regard and dependence on one another in a difficult and uncertain world.
The other thing this movie gets wonderfully right is capturing both the atmosphere and the spirit of Ranganathan Street, from its mega stores down to the guy who sells underwear on the sidewalk, and everything in between. This is done using sweeping shots of the sort of suffocating, wall-to-wall crowds one sees there and more importantly, through funny or touching little vignettes of the people eking out a living on the street day-in and day-out (like the guy who becomes downright wealthy by keeping a roadside toilet there clean!). We get to know the hawkers and beggars and streetwalkers who are an often invisible part of Ranganathan street’s bustling ecosystem, their everyday triumphs and tribulations, and glimpses of their back stories. And more than anything, is shows how their lives are often just a hairsbreadth away from tragedy, how when you live on the streets, you have virtually no buffer against disaster. No insurance, no safety nets.
What the movie gets wrong, perhaps, is its length — it tends to sag a bit towards the middle, and could have been tightened by reducing some of the time spent on side romances of Jothilingam and Kani’s coworkers and such. And there are times when it all gets almost too depressing. But just when you think the movie is going to crash land into a morass of melancholy and melodrama, it surprises you yet again by being amazingly real and showing remarkable spirit. That in the end, makes the ride down Angadi Theru seem worth every minute.