Aelay is Halitha Shameem’s massiest film to date she even sneaks in a whistle-worthy theatre moment by invoking Vijay’s Mersal in the unlikeliest of places. A hero introduction scene prompts townsfolk to go, “Baahubali maadhri vella varaan paaru.” From Baahubali to Mersal, and even a random shoutout to Kadaikutty Singam, it is interesting to observe Halitha embrace, in her own way, the commercial aspects of Tamil cinema.
The film begins with a voiceover that introduces us to Parthi (Manikandan making yet another case of his potential to be a lead hero) and his father Muthukutty (a brilliant Samuthirakani). Theirs is a world where everything doesn’t always happen for a reason, a world without binaries that Halitha takes time to build. Muthukutty is shown to be a bad father, but Halitha ensures we don’t label him as a bad man. Parthi is neither a great son nor is he likely to win ‘boyfriend of the year’ awards.
Yet, he isn’t a bad person either. This non-judgemental approach is extended to almost every character in the film. Aelay is more than just a relationship drama about Parthi and Muthukutty. It is also a love story between Parthi and Nachiya (an effective Madhumathi), the ‘oor pannaiyaar ponnu’ archetype. It is also about Parthi’s three friends, who don’t just stand by him through thick and thin; they also drop uneasy truth bombs when required.
Take, for instance, the scene where Parthi begins to fall in love with Nachiya. Parthi’s friend is quick to ask him to concentrate on studying and make a future for himself. It is not every day that we see such sensible friends in our films. It is also not every day that we see death being celebrated as it does in this film, like we saw in Sethum Aayiram Pon. Aelay, like that film, takes its time to acclimatise us to its village setting. While the film progresses in what seems like a lackadaisical pace, it is interesting to note that this helps you feel a sense of familiarity.
We understand the hectic work life of a professional wailer; we accept the idea of villagers watching a dubbed English film at a funeral. We understand the method to the seeming randomness in Aelay. The film also turns into a whodunit out of nowhere, and how! Though the strong undercurrent of humour tries to hold everything together, the cohesiveness of it all is found wanting. Halitha’s distinctive voice was best showcased in Sillu Karupatti, in which she beautifully weaved four stories about love and its aftereffects. Here too, we see four different subplots… that occur around a funeral.
While the narrative format of an anthology helped unite the four stories in Sillu Karupatti, Aelay, as a feature film, is burdened by a sense of anthology deja vu. Would this sweet, simple love story have worked better as a standalone short? Aelay stays afloat though, courtesy its efficient humour, some good performances from the leads, and impressive music (background score by Aruldev and songs by Kaber Vasuki).
Full points to Halitha for providing Samuthirakani, who is a hoot in this film, the space to reinvent himself.
Muthukutty is the kind of person to buy the notebooks his son wants, but not the kind to hesitate before trading it off for a lottery ticket. Parthi, for his part, is a son more worried about his misfortunes than his father’s. Nachiya is tasked with dealing with their distrustful relationship. Typically, such relationship dramas get resolved with an outburst or two.
In Aelay too, there is a final breakdown, but Halitha manages to add in a neat little twist there that nudges us to look at our flawed parents in different light.
However, all this good work does get undone due to the other lacklustre subplots. Fathers have a special place in the annals of Indian cinema. They are usually either glorified as role models or shown as an example of all that is wrong with men. It then becomes important to get films like Aelay that show them as imperfect men. Like Like Kodukkapuli of Thiagarajan Kumararaj a ’s Aaranya Kaandam re - sponds to a question about his liking for his father, “Apdilaam illa... aanaalum avar enga appa.” So, is Aelay a great film? “Apdilaam illa... aanaalum idhu oru Halitha padam.”
Cast: Samuthirakani, Manikandan, Madhumathi
Director: Halitha Shameem
Streaming On: Disney+ Hotstar