By S Srivatsan, freelance critic
It is not every Friday that you come across the work of a passionate filmmaker. Okay, let me rephrase that statement a bit: it is not everyday that you get to see the passion a debut filmmaker has for their baby. Ganesh K Babu’s Dada, funnily, involves a baby too, is a movie that convinces you that the filmmaker has put so much thought into it before putting pen to paper; that he isn’t making a safe bet; that he is serious about filmmaking.
And it is not everyday that you get to see a Tamil movie that has the last frame mirroring the first, bringing about a sense of roundedness to the screenplay. Until the last frame, I was conflicted about my reaction towards Dada, which kept changing at varying degrees. First, it was the satisfaction of watching something serious and yet handled so lightly. Towards the interval, it was the fear over the direction it was about to take. For a large part of the second half, the movie did nothing to me, except for a few scattered laughs that came from a Facebook-meme version of a movie. Especially the portion catering to the #RelatableITJobJokes. It’s just lazy screenwriting guys, come on. And then when Dada tries to make up for the lost time, the time had already ran out along with it my interest.
But, but. Dada has something charmingly naive about it. This might be construed as a backhanded compliment. The naivety is omnipresent in Ganesh’s writing; it’s there in the performances (this felt like a movie Dhanush would have nailed it. Along with Amala Paul. They were too good in VIP movies); it shows up in the manner of scene construction.
Despite the narrative inconsistencies and the flab in the writing (Dada plays out like a time lapse of moments strung together to be made into a movie with a bit of editing help), Dada gets its own sweet time to shine in the gentle moments, and in gentler touches. Like when a fully-pregnant Sindhu (Aparna Das, who seems to be playing a Malayali), knowing their current economic status, asks Manikandan (Kavin, who looks a little lost for the good) for something economical: a late night bike ride on an empty road. This moment segues quietly and smoothly into the second half, although the scene preceding this is a textbook example of ‘easy solutions’.
Or take this other beautiful scene: Manikandan’s disappointed father (played by Bhagyaraj), after knowing that his bachelor-son is soon-to-be-a-father, nonchalantly tells him that Sindhu has left everything for him. “Andha nambikkai-ya odaikama pathuko.” Highlight the word nambikkai (trust). It’s this nambikkai that Manikandan breaks, not Sindhu’s heart.
In that sense, Ganesh has thought through the conflicts. He knows what the primary conflict is: teenage pregnancy and owning up the mistakes. He knows what the secondary conflict is: taking responsibility for oneself and for the kid. Dada’s problems are never about the conflict; it is Ganesh taking the easy way out to “fix” things.
Dada opens with Sindhu lying on Manikandan’s arm as she gets to be sexually playful with him. He doesn’t give a damn. It’s an intimate moment for the couple, sure. But the background noise we hear is not-so-quiet. We hear a husband and wife fighting over some domestic chores, yelling at each other on the top of their voices. It’s a nice directorial touch; it is what would become of Manikandan and Sindhu later, when they live together after knowing that the latter is pregnant. (Sidenote: even by the end of the movie, I’m not sure if they were lawfully wedded husband and wife. It would have been kickass had they got married in front of their four-year-old-son.) I might be nit-picking here but the movie has serious dubbing-sync issues; there is a macro second lag in what we hear and what we see.
In the same scene, Sindhu sheds tears of happiness to a dismissive Mani. He is a man who cannot cry. At least, he hasn’t cried thus far. He says he was very close to his grandmother and yet, when she died, he did not shed a single tear for her. This is a cue to us, the audience, to brace ourselves for a tear-jerking scene at a later point. When Mani finally cries, it arrives in the least expected moment. I wished it was written better. The reveal was quick and the weight of the scene wasn’t heavy.
Dada benefits a lot from its nativity in the first half. Kavin and Aparna Das are really good as clueless teenagers-about-to-be-turned-parents. Ganesh’s movie is a refreshing evolution from the lenses of Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer, also a movie about teenage pregnancy. In the latter, the teenagers are judged and shamed for what they did. They end up abandoning their relationship and baby.
This is a movie where, when Mani wants to abort, Sindhu wants to have the baby; where she asks the guy to share the burden (as an unmarried couple) together; where she asks to take ownership of the mistakes; and where the guy almost abandons the child. I was reminded of Kramer vs Kramer, where the Merly Streep character leaves Kramer (a fantastic Dustin Hoffman) and their son as a means of saying, “Fuck you. I’m done.” Likewise in Dada, Sindhu abandons Mani and their son Adithya. Even when they get back together, the first thing Mani says is, “Look, what you did was right. But I won’t forgive you for abandoning our child.” This is a remarkable understanding of human relationships.
This is also a movie that understands the impact a fraught relationship might have on the child. In a beautiful scene, Mani asks Adithya whether he knows the role of a mother (it’s often said that the first word babies utter is amma. Here, we get appa). He asks him why he hasn’t asked anything about his mother — and the boy says, “I don’t want you to get upset at the mention of her.” I had a lump in my throat. When Dada brings its focus back on Mani, Sindhu, Adithya and their tiny family locked in a tight frame, it hits the sweet spot.