I watched “Thanga Meengal” last Sunday. I resisted writing my two-pence about it for the whole of last week as I did not want to spoil it for my friends. But I guess I can safely say something about it now.
“Thanga Meengal” means ‘Gold Fish’ in Tamil. It is the story of a 7 or 8 year old little girl who is the apple of her father’s eye. The child comes from a reasonably well-off family, but the father is seen to be a loser, as he does not have a job that fetches him a lot of money. We are told that the father discontinued his studies past high school, and therefore cannot land a well paying job. Finally the father leaves hometown in search of a job, and his travails in raising enough funds in order to get an expensive gift for his daughter form much of the story.
I watched the film with many eyes. I watched it not only with my eyes, but also with my heart and mind and soul. For that is how I see any film. It is not essential that a film has to be logical. It’s not even important that the film has to have a pact with reality. No! It’s all about whether the film can tell a story with honesty. Does the film fundamentally fulfill the need in me to enjoy a story, because I love a good story?! And the story has to hum with my DNA. The cinematography, the take-home message, the actors, are all incidental, not essential to a film. How can I enjoy something if I cannot agree with something at the molecular level?? I don’t think a film maker has to make a film for me or with me on his mind. A film maker need not enter my world. But I need to be able to visit his world and go on a walk with him there on those streets, watching the sights and sounds as we walk. That’s when I fall in love with a film.
Films are like places to me. It’s like a city or town or village that we go on a visit. There are some places we like. We have an emotional connection with them. There are other places that you pledge not to visit again, if you can help it. It is the same with films. They conjure up emotions and memories.
For example, I love Madurai. I love Madurai, because I love the Ayira Fish Curry and Mutton Thala Curry that I ate at Amma Mess on one of my early visits to that wonderful city. I love it for so many other reasons as well, but the taste of the curry just lingers in my mouth, and when I think of Madurai, I cannot but be overwhelmed by the memory of the sensation of taste that flowed over my taste buds on that day. On subsequent visits I did not eat much. But that one trip did it for me. It was love affair with Madurai. Another city that I love is Vizag. I love it for the drive on an early morning as we ascended the Kailashgiri hills with a view of the sea clearly in front of us. The hills and the beach are like sisters living besides each other in unity. That road has become crowded and cluttered now, but for me, that memory is locked in my eye’s viewfinder and I can only think of Vizag with great fondness.
Every film is filled with surprises. Obviously there are so many elements and there is just not one thing that leaves an impression. But it is one thing or two that you carry back with you.
I watched Thanga Meengal as an ordinary film viewer. Like one who is in sync with the 300 other people seated along with me in the Cinema hall that are sharing the movie experience with me, I gasped and exhaled and chuckled at all the places that they did. I loved the film. I believe that this is no ordinary film. It talks about a subject that is not in keeping with the routine song, dance, fight, sentimental hotch-potch that popular Indian cinema commonly represents.
I watched the film wearing the hat of one who was a special child myself and as one who shared a deep and a beautiful relationship with my own father. I also watched the film as a Pediatrician who spent much of my adult life working with and caring for children, most of them vulnerable children from very difficult backgrounds. I was unable to decide whether I liked the film or not. I both loved and hated the relationship that was depicted in the film.
On the one hand we have authoritarian teachers and parents that stifle a child. On the other hand we have parents that overcompensate with overly permissive parenting that does not teach kids about limits and self control. Research shows that both extremes are damaging to a child’s ability to regulate emotions and form healthy relationships as adults. They are prone to mess up later in their life. A father should be able to set fair and clear limits on unacceptable behavior while allowing choice, and at the same time hearing and respecting the feelings of a child. That’s a healthy balance. That balance was missing in the father-child duo in Thanga Meengal.
Every child has a birth right to being pulled out of a schoolplay/sport; undergo rejection in some measure, and fail. It’s called growing up. There is nothing pathological about it. Parents have to stand by and navigate children through these times, intervening occasionally, instead of feeling defeated and rejected themselves.
I didn’t like the condescending manner in which this father talks to his daughter. If only he had been half as sensitive to his wife as he had been to his daughter, he would have been a better role model as an adult, and I would have loved this character more. I think he was a selfish and confused loser father, who wanted to prove something to himself at the cost of his child. It was more about him, than about his child or family. I think with this film we are going to legitimize the raising of a generation of little girls who will not take no for an answer.
But the film has been going on in loops in my mind all week. Any film that evokes such a strong emotional response is definitely a winner. I wish the makers of the film, including my friend Gautham Vasudev Menon all the best.