Spoilers: This review contains spoilers.
I like movies that immerse me in a foreign culture. I’m a stay-at home vicarious traveler and I depend upon cinema to transport me from my couch to unfamiliar lands and introduce me to new cultures. “A Peck On the Cheek” fills the screen with 136 minutes of scenery, music, culture, drama, and life in southern India and Sri Lanka. I returned from my trip well satisfied.
The film tells the story of nine-year-old T. Amudha and her search for her real mother. On her ninth birthday her father tells her that she is adopted. Shocked, upset, disbelieving, she decides on the spot to find her birth mother, no matter what. When her adoptive parents are slow to cooperate, she runs away from home to search on her own. Then does it again. With this, her parents relent and agree to go with her and help her on her quest. Their search takes the three of them from their home in Chennai (the former Madras) south to Rameswaram, a coastal town in southern India just across the straights from Sri Lanka, and thence over to Sri Lanka and the Tamil provinces of the island itself.
“A Peck On the Cheek” is a regional film made in the Tamil language, but it is replete with Bollywood characteristics. That is, it’s completely melodramatic, romantic, and sentimental, without containing a hint of irony. As a Western viewer, I needed to keep checking that last fact, to confirm that everything I was seeing was as straight-ahead as it appeared to be; it was. The acting is solid, the visuals are arresting, and if you wear your heart on your sleeve, the movie should work for you. In the same way that you don’t go to a Marx Brothers movie expecting subtle humor, you don’t watch a Bollywood movie if you crave an exercise in understated angst. These characters do not spend much time staring off into space.
The film’s title comes from a line by the nationalist Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar (d 1921). I found the poem, but not in English, so I can only surmise whose cheek is referenced and who is doing the pecking.
And just to note here that Tamils are a Dravidian racial group located in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, and in northern Sri Lanka. Because a civil war has been fought between the majority Sinhalise and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka for the past 25 years, and is still being fought, many Tamils have been displaced and fled the country. There are Tamil expatriot communities in countries around the world, including Malaysia, South Africa, and Singapore. In addition, a diaspora of 77 million Tamils to every continent has been caused by the socio-economic pressures typical in many third-world societies in modern times.
The Tamils occupied and controlled areas of southern India before the Aryan invasions from the north that occurred millenia ago. The desire of some Tamils in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in India to form a separate state has something in common with the current situation of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
During the movie’s opening credits, I was surprised that all of the actors used a single name. The adoptive father and mother, named G. Thiruchelvan and T. Indra in the movie, are played by Madhaven and Simran respectively. Is Madhaven the only Indian actor with that name? My friends tell me that he’s a big star who has made more than 1,200 TV episodes and 10 films, and no other “Madhaven” actors come up in IMDB, but still, with an Indian population of one billion, I didn’t expect single names to be common, but so it is. In any event, the Tamil naming convention is to use a single name with one or two initials prepended as necessary for further identification. The initials can represent town or region of origin, or father’s name, or other indentifier. So that, as Amudha searches for her mother, she asks for “Shyama” and then “M.D. Shyama.” (In the movie, her birth mother is known to be from Mankulam.)
The movie begins with an arranged marriage. The bride and groom meet for the first time at the wedding ceremony. I have four or five friends whose marriages were arranged and the marriages have all worked out nicely so far. “When eyes meet, words are not needed” goes an ancient saying. The usual explanation for the high success rate is that the parents of the prospective husband and wife know their children well and so are able to make a good choice for them. In “A Peck on the Cheek,” the arrangement is accomplished by Shyama’s brother.
In the bedroom on the wedding night, the groom teases the bride about her skin color, darker than his own. He tells her that he could rub her cheek and use the color that came off as kohl for her eyeshadow, and that her name means “black.” She replies that she’s as light-skinned as he is. I wondered, first, whether this signaled that the groom was to be an abusive husband, and second, what role skin color plays in Indian cultural life. Turns out that the groom wasn’t being abusive; he was just doing a little light courtship teasing. In the end, he says “Well, a dark skin hides a pure heart.” (There are no bad guys in the movie.)
The complete range of Indian skin color is present in the movie: ebony black, tawny brown, olive, honey gold, wheat, pale tan, golden copper, almost-white. Polling ten or twenty Indian acquaintances here, I am told that lighter is considered more attractive than darker, but that there are no racial overtones involved with skin color. Color consciousness, yes, but racism, no. For example, kids may nickname the darkest in their group “blackie,” regardless of his standing otherwise. “I had to come to the U.S. to learn about the racial significance of skin color,” one friend told me. In the U.S. we have tanning salons and creams; in India it’s “fair and lovely” soaps and “return to whiteness” skin-lightening creams. “If the skin is white, it is love at first sight” as another old saying has it. Someone did tell me that light color symbolizes status and success. One Indian man told me that most of the personal ads in the newspapers and online in India specify a requirement for a “fair” or “wheatish” woman.
A Tamil friend did disagree about the racism, saying that the matter was not so cut-and-dried. He pointed out that in this movie, for example, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are depicted as much darker than those of southern India, and that some viewers take this as a negative statement about the Tamil insurgent movement.
Anyway, at some point following the wedding, M.D. Shyama tells her husband that she wants seven or eight children. He replies seriously that he doesn’t want any children at all until peace comes. Of course, anyone watching the movie in India would understand this sentiment immediately, being well familiar with the relentless suicide bombings, assassinations, and massacres of the past several decades. In a night scene with thunder and lightning foreshadowing the bomb blasts to come, the husband hears or imagines troops marching past. But since no conflict has been shown yet onscreen, his feelings caught me a little by surprise, even though I knew about the civil war in an abstract way. In the event, his resolve notwithstanding, Shyama becomes pregnant. It is while a refugee, separated from her husband, following a sea crossing in a storm that’s staged at the highest possible pitch of visual drama, that Shyama gives birth and loses the baby to adoption – exactly why, I don’t know.
With this, Amudha is introduced in Chennai on her ninth birthday. She tells us that she wants to be a dancer when she grows up, or a famous space scientist. We meet her family: her father, a mechanical engineer and well-known writer with a short temper; her mother, a TV broadcaster who does the morning news in Chennai; two younger brothers whom she teases; her grandfather; and her father’s sister and the sister’s husband. A happy, modern, extended family.
Amudha is quickly established as an independent, spunky young woman and, at fifteen minutes into the movie, I experience my first Indian-movie musical segment. Just minutes before, Shyama has been carried into a decrepit building, screaming in pain, to deliver her baby. Cut to the introduction of Amudha and her family a few years later, followed immediately by what seemed to me to be an MTV song-and-scenery montage, dropped into the movie from some other movie universe. (A.M.Rahman has done the music for all of director Mani Ratnam’s movies.) One reviewer suggests that the musical segments in the movie (there are three of them) are Amudha’s fantasies. Since she’s featured in all of them, this could be so. More likely, the first is point-of-view for Amudha, the second point of view for her mother, and the third for her father.
The first segment runs eight minutes and features a bright and perky song about Amudha and what she is like. As the song is sung, we see her at school with her chums. The school appears to be Catholic parochial, like the Sacred Heart schools around the world, with the children in a uniform of red-checked shirt and gray short pants or skirt. The kids run, wrestle, march, and play in quick scenes as Amudha is described:
Can you drive a nail into a cloud?
Can you shut Amudha up in a bottle?
Sundari, my little twin-tailed beauty!
Waterfall on wings.
She can melt a stare and make it laugh.
She plans impish little acts.
She wipes away your anger with a smile.
She tucks sorrow deep into her dimples.
She traps the sky in her hair.
She is the peak of happiness and of trouble too.
She is a breeze with nails tearing into you.
Cah you catch a wave and bind it with a rope?
Isn’t she a wave born only to dance?
A butterfly with teeth, she bites your cheek and then kisses it.
She’s a mother to me and a mother-in-law too, in a daughter’s guise.
She’s the villain of the classroom.
A heroine at studies.
She’ll ask 1000 questions that only she can answer.
She’ll take classes for the teacher.
The poor fool who marries her, what won’t he endure?
He’ll have to cook in the water she washes her foot in.
So that’s Amudha in a nutshell. To reiterate, emotion is not hidden or buried in this film. It’s up there on the screen for all to see. If there is subtlety present, it does not involve the characters keeping their own counsel. They say what they think, in short scenes. The bright, upbeat musical segments, juxtaposed with issues of adoption and war, set up a certain dissonance, which, for me at least, heightened the feeling and impact of both the music and the scenes of conflict and violence.
During the Amudha song/montage, my head was still in narrative mode, back with the storm at sea and the screaming woman. By the time I started to pay attention to the music, the segment was over. I made a note to pay better attention when the next such segment arrived.
And now it is Amudha’s birthday. Her mother Indra applies a red mark to her forehead between the eyebrows. I asked my Indian friends if the ninth birthday has any particular significance, but was told no. I’m thinking, though, that her mother applying the mark was meant to be symbolic of her growing up, because at the same time her father decided to tell her the truth about her birth. In southern India, unmarried women choose to wear the mark (called a vermillion, or pinjar) between the eyebrows. In other areas, it’s the prerogative of married women to do so. In the south, married women wear the mark up near the hairline. It has been a tradition over the ages for Indian women to wear this dot. However, its actual meaning has been lost. One explanation is that it was a symbol indicating that the woman was married. Now, though, unmarried girls also wear the mark. In some cases, it’s treated as a fashion mark and anything goes. Widows don’t wear it. One interesting explanation of the mark is that in the past, women were not allowed to be in the presence of the elders of the house or to participate in anything that the men did. As an Indian woman says, “This led to tension in the minds of these women and application of pressure at the point between the eyes to relieve the tension. The use of saffron before applying the colourful kumkum would have been for its antiseptic effect.”
The mark is also sometimes used in religious observance. In the U.S., the woman might wear the mark in the household, but remove it in public. A male Tamil friend of mine had such a mark the other day made of ashes, applied in the course of a Hindu religious ceremony earlier that day.
Although her father has determined that Amudha is old enough to know that she was adopted at birth, his wife and her father don’t agree. He tells her anyway. When Amudha learns the truth, naughty sparrow that she is, she runs away from home and her father must retrieve her from the train station. This incident is the occasion for a great deal of brow-knitting by all concerned.
Next Amudha enlists a friend, borrows money from her grandfather, and catches a bus with her friend to the port city of Rameswaram, where she was born and where she hopes to find her mother. Scenery galore but no luck in Rameswaram. Her parents retrieve her again. Madhaven, playing the father, has the strong, charismatic screen presence of a major star, and Simran (Indra) and P.S. Keerthana (Amudha) stand up to him admirably throughout the film. (Or perhaps I’ve got this backwards: http://inadeeptrance.blogspot.com/2007/09/mani-ratnam-top-10-part-2.html.)
Aumdha is struggling here with her confused feelings about Indra. Does this woman who is not her true mother even love her? Does Indra love her as much as she loves her two real sons? Deeply upset, Amudha notes that her skin is darker than her mother’s. “Did you find me in a dust bin?” she asks unhappily.
Indra’s feelings are expressed in the second musical montage:
There is a throbbing in my chest
and a thudding in my ears
when you kiss me so tenderly.
Oh flower that God gave me
What are you looking for in my eyes?
You are the spot where our life begins.
You are the spot where the sky ends.
You came like the gentlest of breezes
…then stayed on as my breath.
You’re the life that takes its source in my heart.
You are the one that is close to me.
You are my foe as well.
You are the flower of love.
You are the thorn in my womb.
You are the beloved rain.
You are the small burst of thunder.
You are the newborn and the life that departs.
You are the birth that is born in death.
The song is accompanied by upbeat images of mother and daughter together on a vast beach of white sand, with the wooden bones of an ancient shipwreck, the couple splashing in shallow water, and much more, all in white and blue with vivid color in the clothing of mother and daughter. Not something that you’ll see and hear in a Hollywood film.
In spite of these strong maternal feelings that Indra has for her, Amudha remains concerned. From time to time, she stops talking to Indra entirely, as if she were fourteen or fifteen, not nine.
Here we get some extended backstory about how Thiruchelvan and Indra met and married and how they came to adopt Amudha. Back in the present, Amudha’s father realizes that she will not give up until she finds her mother. He promises her that he will help her do so and the movie breaks for an intermission at the one hour and fifteen minute mark.
The movie was made by Mani Ratnam, credited as the man who revolutionized Tamil-language cinema. Ratnam (54), has made many hit movies and is arguably the most important director in south India, with 22 films to his credit. He is known for making movies with style but also substance, movies that deal with personal and political issues of the day, both in north and south India, and in Tamil, Hindi, and other languages. “A Peck on the Cheek” is a product of the “Madras Talkies” studio.
After the intermission, mother, father, and daughter fly to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where a friend takes them in hand. This half of the movie is filled with a mix of the ancient and the modern, sacred ruins and new buildings that were run-down before they were finished. Jungle and town. The poor and the very poor. Birdsong and birds, insects, green vegetation, running water, elephants. Black children with guns. War and armed conflict.
Part of the fun of watching this movie, by the way, is listening to the language. Tamil is designed to run very fast over the tongue and out of the mouth. No glottals or plosives to slow things down (I don’t know what I’m talking about, but one does wonder how the syllables can flow so quickly). Tamil is pre-Indo European, spoken by the Dravidians who inhabited India before the Aryans showed up. It’s one of the world’s ancient languages. It’s agglutinative, meaning that it starts with a root and adds bits in front of and after the root to designate noun class, number, and case, verb tense, and other grammatical categories. English does a little of this, such as adding an s for a plural; an extreme example in English would be “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Words like this are the norm in Tamil. Listening to the dialog is like listening to a brook in the forest – a rapid dahdtity dahdtity dahdtity candence that seems almost impossible to articulate or understand, like a continuous string of tongue-twisters. Amudha notices a difference in the Sri Lankan Tamil and comments on it immediately.
English words like “sorry,” “happy birthday,” “selfish,” “OK,” “intentions,” “conditions,” “honorable,” “please,” and “promise” have been absorbed into Tamil, so that the flow of dialog is punctuated by little dots of English.
While in the northern, principally Tamil, capitol of Jaffna, Amudha’s father Thiruchelvan gives a speech on writing to a hall full of appreciative listeners. Outside, Amudha wanders across to a park and chats with a man in a wheelchair. Shortly thereafter, a scene of violence occurs that truly surprised and shocked me. If I had been watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster aimed at the teenage male demographic, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I’ve seen much, much worse. But here it happened after an hour and twenty minutes of mother-daughter conflict, father-daughter discussions, music, color, and birdsong. Before I had quite recovered from it, a third musical segment presented itself.
One sense of the foreign in this movie comes from the film’s lack of conformance with any single Western plot template, as with this sudden, unexpected act of extreme violence followed by a pleasant musical interlude. The power of the music is multiplied by its position just after the explosive moment. Of course, Hollywood makes frequent use of soft following loud, quiet following violent and vice versa, and the principle is the same here, I suppose. But I don’t recall a Hollywood film in which, for example, Bruce Willis blows up a building and then Doris Day comes out and warbles.
The third musical segment, the most visually arresting of the three, features Amudha and her father. He sings to her but to my great annoyance the song isn’t subtitled. Father and daughter are happy and the screen is full of waterfalls, mist, steep rock cliffs, statues of the Buddha, monks, elephants, white flags, and innumerable picturesquevistas. I assume that the song and montage are to take some of the sting out of the preceding violence, and to provide a respite before continuing into the civil war while describing the father’s feelings and hopes for his daughter. Or something similar. Perhaps the father is waxing philosophical. By now I was able to sit back and enjoy the music and visuals without pondering the meaning of it all.
And now, as the trio makes contact with the insurgents, they are warned that the army is nearby, and wherever the army is congregating, they should avoid. Amudha refuses to stop her search. The tension builds, because we know that the trio is not going to make it out of harm’s way. A firefight suddenly erupts between insurgents and the army, with flying bodies, a flaming helmet, and death all around as parents and daughter hide behind a bench. As my friend mentioned, the insurgents were noticeably darker than the soldiers.
Then on to the birth mother’s town, Mankulam, and more army activity. The townspeople are evacuating, explosions are heard. During the evacuation scene in the countryside, I had the thought “cast of thousands” because it approached spectacle class. And at the conclusion of quite a battle scene, in a clunky twist, the searchers learn that there is a second Mankulam, to which they must now make their way.
The civil war is taken to have started in Sri Lanka in 1983. A group named LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) had been assassinating moderate Tamils up to then and then attacked in the north and killed 13 soldiers from the majority Sinhalese army. In the resulting riots, up to 300 Tamils were killed in Sinhalese areas. The LTTE gradually absorbed or eliminated all the other rebel (or freedom-fighting) Tamil groups, or drove them over to the other side. So that in additional to the largely Sinhalese army, there have been Tamil paramilitaries and political groups opposing the LTTE as well. Over the years, the insurgents and army have been involved in various offensives and massacres against each other, with civilians in the crossfire or used as targets. The LTTE carried out its first suicide bombing in 1987. (Anyone who somehow has the idea that suicide bombing is peculiar to Muslims, can note the fact here that it is a prominent tool of the Tamil Hindu insurgents as well.)
For more on the war, refer to, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Civil_War.
I wondered if the movie was making a statement about the civil war – whether it was taking sides. After all, Mani Ratnam is Tamil and the war has been going on for half his life. To me, the uninformed viewer, it seemed that the Sri Lankan army was portrayed as sinister, in the sense that it wasn’t wise to stick around anytime they were seen to be arriving in force, whereas the LTTE rebels were made more sympathetic, struggling in the jungle and prey to the army, with Shyama caring for lots of little kids. On the other hand, the first violent act in the movie was a rebel blowing himself up along with numerous members of the military. A Tamil friend of mine from Chennai who saw the movie felt that the conflict was simply meant to be a backdrop for Amudha’s personal struggle, and that Ratnam did not take sides. I asked my friend if he, himself, personally leaned one way or the other and he said that after the Tigers assassinated Rajiv Ghandi, the Indian Prime Minister, the popularity of the LTTE and its struggle dropped precipitously in southern India. For my friend, the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka seem culturally very similar, although the Tamils are Hindu and the Sinhalese Buddhist with some Muslims and Christians. As in Northern Ireland and Iraq, cultural brothers or cousins can fight each other as brutally as strangers ever could.
The movie dialog, at any rate, simply asks why peace can’t come, when it might come, or if it ever will come. “When will we live in peace?” “It’s the commercial interest of the weapons makers,” comes the reply, “to try out their weapons in undeveloped countries.”
Reading the history of the last 25 years – each massacre remembered, each bombing detailed, the maneuvering between and within sides, the deals with India and, according to most Indians I talked to, with the CIA, displaced population all over the island and the world, the compounding of misery caused by the tsunami and subsequent conflict over the administration of tsunami aid, the seesaw over decades of military force, conquest, loss, always accompanied by and causing the death and suffering of the innocent – Iraq at its worst, but stretched over decades, intractable, with only the total exhaustion of the people able to stem the tide of violence even for a little while – the questions raised – when peace, how, if – are in themselves a cry against war.
In the end, Shyama (Nandita Das, another famous actress) and Amudha – birth mother and her daughter – come face to face, as the adopted parents look on. The scene, the climax of the movie, does not disappoint. The situation itself, mother and daughter reunited in a war-torn country, two good actresses, the embrace of pure unironic melodrama, and the mother’s need to choose between her daughter and her cause, is a combination, after two hours of spectacle and histrionics, that is bound to jerk some tears from you if you’ve got any to be jerked.
Amudha and her adoptive parents can go home to a normal, productive life, but Shyama is caught in an unending conflict that she can’t hope to escape, one of the many wars around the world that grind on, unstoppable and remorseless, with the outside world doing nothing to intervene.
This film won nine awards, including the Silver Lotus at the National Film Awards, India.
The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”
IMDB rating – 8.2.