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Angaadi Theru – Tamil Cinema’s Dickensian Moment?

The commercial as well as critical success enjoyed this year by the Tamil cinema release Angaadi Theru reflects not just the maturity and range of the Tamil cinema industry but also of its audience. Dealing with the difficult themes of harsh working conditions, rural poverty and exploring the lives of Chennai’s urban poor, Angaadi Theru is refreshingly different from the usual saccharine mix of romance, music and escapism that has become characteristic of Indian cinema as a whole.

Directed by Vasanthabalan, the film quickly gained the critical acclaim it richly reserved, landing the respectable runner up slot in the competition to be selected as the Indian entry for the foreign film category of the Academy Awards. However, Angaadi Theru has also been a huge commercial success, suggesting that Tamil cinema audiences across the world have a developing appetite for serious and challenging films.

Angaadi Theru’s central preoccupation is the unflinching portrayal of the dangerous, precarious and often fetid conditions in which the vast majority of the Tamil Nadu working poor struggle to live, love and care for their families. It focuses in particular on Chennai’s booming retail sector. Angaadi Theru can be loosely translated as commercial street and the plot centres on the fictitious Senthil Murugan stores, a mock up of the massive retail outlets found in Chennai’s famous T. Nagar. In following the lives and loves of the Senthil Murugan employees, the film shows the underbelly of Chennai’s booming retail sector.

The workers conditions of employment closely resemble the conditions of slave labour. Having been hired from struggling rural families, the young shop assistants then have to pay from their own meagre wages for their transport to Chennai, their uniform and also the squalid dorms in which they are housed. They are constantly at the prey of exploitative supervisors who regularly mete out violent punishment whilst also always looking for opportunities to sexually assault female workers.

In tackling the retail economy of Senthil Murugan stores, the movie also captures the working experiences of rural labourers and domestic servants. The hero, Lingam, is a bright student with a promising future who has to abandon his studies and seek employment in the Chennai retail sector when his father, a stone mason, is killed in an accident. Lingam’s father dies when his bus gets stuck across railway tracks and is hit by an oncoming train; the bus driver’s decision to risk the crossing an expression of a reckless approach to safety that routinely costs the lives of manual and construction workers across India.

The heroine Kani is also forced to Selvan Murugan to support her family while her younger sister is sent off to work as a domestic servant at the home of a prosperous and callous family. When Kani’s sister her first menstrual period the family instantly put her in the dog house to avoid polluting the family home. Later on the family decide to ship Kani’s sister off to Assam to care for a relative of theirs who has recently given birth and insist that the young domestic’s rail-fare will be met through deductions from her own measly wages.

The film has a distinctly Dickensian sensibility. It is animated by a social conscience and captures a large chunk of Tamil Nadu society; from the wealthy owner of the Selvan Murugan stores, through his violent and lecherous supervisors, to the corrupt police officers in his pay, the shop assistants themselves and their families and finally an array of characters who make their living begging, picking rags or pavement hawking on the streets of T. Nagar.  It also features a guest appearance by Sneha, who gamely plays a knowing parody of herself as the glamorous actress fronting a commercial for the store and blissfully unaware of its darker workings.

But Angadi Theru is more than just a meditation on the exploitation and violence of Chennai’s commercial life. It Dickensian sensibility sheds light on the heroic and hopeful aspects of the human condition. It captures the moments of extraordinary generosity and tenderness in which rag pickers and pavement vendors care for each other and support each other through difficult times.

Meanwhile strangers regularly show kindness. When the two lovers are violently forced to leave Selvan Murugan stores finding themselves unemployed and homeless, it is a pavement seller who offers them a way of making money and helps them find a place to sleep where they can be safe from the predations of Chennai’s night-time gangs. When the penniless Kani laments that she is unable to provide her younger sister with the rituals that normally mark a girl’s first menstrual period, a group of women who happen to be gathered at a temple the sisters pass come together and conduct the ceremony ensuring the girl’s passage into maturity is marked auspiciously.

There are also moments of laugh out loud humour. All of the characters, particularly Kani, are blessed with a wicked sense of fun. Always ready to make the best of their difficult situation, their working lives and their romantic escapades are pricked with scenes of intense hilarity. Meanwhile the film’s gaze also captures the comedy of Chennai street life; including an enterprising pavement dweller who cleans a filthy public convenience and promptly turns it into a pay per use money spinner.

Along with an excellent script and flawless acting, the unalloyed watchability and cinematic pleasure of this movie are also down to its utterly beautiful soundtrack and mature cinematography that captures Chennai life exactly as it is; both the ugly and the beautiful. The soundtrack is a testament to the talent of the music producers Vijay Anthony and G. V Prakash Kumar. The lyrics are simple but moving and the music is melodic and memorable; the tracks will definitely become classics to be heard with pleasure by many generations to come. Meanwhile the cinematography of Richard M. Nathan demonstrates a highly developed aesthetic sense; the rural landscapes as well as the Chennai metropole appear as would seem to the movie’s struggling protagonists, harsh and difficult but also at times beautiful and always offering some small hope and promise.

Angadi Theru can be compared in its ambition and scale to Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, a novel set in a fictitious industrial city called Coketown and centred on Gradgrind, a mocking caricature of the merciless and soulless industrialist. Through the novel Dickens hoped to prick the collective conscience of Victorian Britain by showing the underside of rapid industrial growth and its terrible disfigurement of social life.

Angadi Theru is clearly animated by a similar ambition. Although the signs of growing economic prosperity are everywhere in Chennai and across India more generally, the film points to the ongoing human misery that exists alongside economic prosperity. Without sliding into moralising or melodrama, the film has clearly captured an audience and attention. Perhaps it will serve as a Dickensian prick in the conscience and be part of a wider effort to recognise and address the exploitative working conditions endured by the vast majority of India’s labouring poor.