Sillu Karupatti: An unsatisfying, even if noteworthy, collection of stories about love.

My husband and I fight a lot. Each time, it starts with something benign, but as the argument progresses, tensions escalate and the friction becomes palpable. Every fight reaches a breaking point, where the conflict is at its peak. It is here that the resolution begins. So far, every one of our fights has also been satisfactorily resolved.

Sometimes, these fights happen when my mother-in-law is around, and she’s conflict-averse. So, right at the very beginning of our fight, she’ll start saying, “Sari, sari. Vidunga. Naan tea pottu tharren.” or some such. And then, we both grudgingly stop fighting. These fights always remain unresolved — so much so that after mother-in-law is gone, I pick the fight again, just to bring it to closure.

Sillu Karupatti gave me the exact feeling I have when mother-in-law tries to ‘diffuse’ a fight: One of unbearable dissatisfaction.

Sillu Karupatti, Halitha Shameem’s second film, is a loosely connected anthology of stories about love — across class, caste and age barriers. She treats them with a delicate hand. Each of the four films in the anthology unravel slowly, with little happening by way of plot, inviting us to invest in the character and not the action. Each of these characters is written for relatability, and it works for the most part.

In spite of being about romantic relationships and somewhat funny, Sillu Karupatti isn’t your run-of-the-mill rom-com. Halitha not only successfully subverts what passes for romance in Tamil films these days, she also brings to fore the ‘real’ problems of male-female relationships. She does this without screaming from rooftops, wrapping her insight in the eponymous sillu karupatti, which is the both the film’s grand success and it’s foremost failing.

Pink Bag, the first of the four films in the anthology, is about young love — a school-age rag-picker, Manja, grows admiration for Mity, a similar-aged girl in an ivory tower, while going through the latter’s discards. One day, in Mity’s pink bin liner, Manja finds a ring — one she thinks is very precious to her, even as her sister doesn’t think it’s worth losing sleep over (literally). Manja endeavours to return it to her and so it goes.

The film goes out of its way not to present Manja and his community as the lesser ones; it passes no judgment, doesn’t want us to either. In a beautifully written scene, Manja’s attempts to ‘give’ Mity her property is mistaken for ‘stealing’ by her relative — an acute observation of bias, thrown in casually. But no one is reprimanded for this — no one so much as says sorry for mistaking Manja’s act of generosity for theft.

Halitha seems to be saying, “I’m just showing you the world as it is”. She does this with compassion. Or, is it benevolence? Because the problem with being happy with ‘as it is’ is that it’s unfair and unsatisfying: Unfair, when you’re talking about poverty and discrimination; unsatisfying, when it remains as close to ‘as it is’ even after the conflict is resolved.

For instance, when Manja does return the ring in the end, along with a personal message of admiration, the central conflict of class isn’t resolved. Mity simply throws a bunch of chocolates into a box and sends it to Manja in exactly the same way as before — in a pink bin liner (calling it a ‘bag’ itself is injustice, I think), along with other garbage, for Manja to rummage through. The resolution for the Pink Bag conundrum is a band-aid of charity, not an invitation for equal friendship. What a wasted opportunity!

This inability to escalate conflict and let it boil over — I assume it’s done consciously — runs through all four films. The “taboo” topics explored in the film titled Kaakkaa Kadi appear to have no taboo associated with them at all. They discuss porn, masturbation, sperm freezing etc. pretty casually. It’s almost as if the film is asking: “Idhukaada ivlo build up-u“!

The last of all films, Hey Ammu, about a housewife, Amudhini, finding a better companion in a smart speaker than her own husband of twelve years, sugarcoats internalised misogyny. Here, we have a man, Dhanapal, who doesn’t even think of his wife as human — he doesn’t listen to her, he has “thookka maathirai sex” with her, tells her to “drink women’s Horlicks and sleep” when she raises legitimate concerns about their relationship.

While the film doesn’t underplay the horror of Amudhini’s situation — there is a remarkable scene about the drudgery of her day — it trivialises this obviously omnipresent problem with its damp resolution. A neighbour saying, “your wife is always locked in at home, take her to the supermarket at least” or the infamous love guru on radio asking men to “thank their women like they’d thank the popcorn vendor at a film theatre” is just too generous for men like Dhanapal!

It’s almost like the film is saying, “there, there, you poor thing, you didn’t know that your wife has feelings, let’s make the smart speaker tell you.” And if the underlying message is that couples need to speak to each other — what’s that scene about dinner reservations and women speaking in riddles!

Sillu Karupatti isn’t a bad anthology. In fact, it’s ambitious in form, style and even content. It’s insightful in several places — sweet ironies galore, if we care to look. But it is so restrained that it never feels bold. It appears adamant on cherishing the status quo; never really questioning it. It is always diffusing situations that the payoffs never feel worthwhile, the endings never satisfactory.

Sillu Karupatti is an inoffensive presentation of today, not a courageous imagination of tomorrow.