Naangal Review: Dispassionate Yet Profoundly Moving Film Hits Home With Phenomenal Force

Naangal is in the Asian Cinema Competition lineup at the ongoing 15th Bengaluru International Film festival

Naangal Review: Dispassionate Yet Profoundly Moving Film Hits Home With Phenomenal Force

A still from Naangal.

Epic in length - it has a runtime of nearly four and a half hours - but squarely focused on the minutiae of the life of three boys and their excessively stern father, Naangal (This Is Us) is an exceptional piece of cinema. Calling it a piece of anything would be somewhat incongruous - it is far larger than that.

Naangal - the Tamil film is part of the Asian Cinema Competition at the ongoing 15th Bengaluru International Film Festival - is a striking and sweeping collage of innumerable shards of memory, mostly unsettling, collated and rendered in the form stunning images underwired by a fantastic background score and strung together with impressive skill and imagination.

Written, directed, shot and edited by Avinash Prakash, Naangal has the look of a work helmed by a seasoned director. But it is a debut film. A deeply personal essay, its length is bound to be commented on. What is important is that the time that Naangal takes to tell a story that spans about a decade seems completely justified. Growing up is never easy particularly when home isn't what it is meant to be - sweet home.

Opening with a title card that refers to the Welsh notion of hiraeth, Naangal explains it as homesickness for a home you cannot return to or one that never existed. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of the director's own childhood spent on an estate in Ooty in a home devoid of true sustained happiness.

The focus is on the three siblings. How things pan out for them is entirely contingent on their taskmaster-father who makes no concessions for any transgressions. One of the boys gets slapped for buying honey candy. Another is hit because he fails in all his six subjects.

There is no room in this suffocating world for missteps. One person says: Education is freedom, freedom to think. The father in Naangal may pay lip service to that notion, but when it comes to practice. that is the last thing that he is wont to believe.

With a cast of newcomers who blend completely into the film's ambience, Naangal is an affecting portrait of a father who is convinced that he means well. He loves his three sons to the point of feeling no qualms about inflicting emotional wounds on them in his attempts to discipline them and prepare them for the challenges of life.

The father, Rajkumar (debutant Abdul Rafe), resorts to ruthless methods of parenting. But he is anything but a monster. He does, if only rarely, feel a twinge of remorse or express regret for being overly strict. Give me another chance, I will bring your childhood back, he says to his sons in one such moment of 'weakness'. But does he really mean it?

It is his failures as a man, a father and an entrepreneur that impact the way he treats his sons - Karthik (Mithun V.), Gautam (Nithin D.) and Dhruv (Rithik M.). He alternates between suffocating concern and outright corrosiveness, leaving his children in a constant state of dread.

The fear of the father is accentuated by the setting - a bungalow in the hills that is without water and electricity. Rajkumar has not been able to pay the bills for months. On dark nights, there is thunder and lightning that rattle the windows and send gloomy streaks of light into the rooms. Two of the siblings play practical pranks on the third one who is petrified of spectres in the shadows.

But there is nobody that the boys are more afraid of than their father. He is spoken of in hushed tones. We see the man reflected in mirrors or obstructed by objects. He looms over the home even when we do not see him and fear is writ large on the boys every time he speaks.

Alternating between colour and black & white and filmed entirely in natural light, Naangal is set in the 1990s. The boys' mother Padma (Prarthana Srikaanth) isn't around. The reason for her absence is revealed as the film unfolds at a pace and with a rhythm that approximates the general nature of the fraught existence for the three boys.

The home they that live in is joyless especially when dad is in a foul mood. The man's demeanour borders on the unreasonable. He makes the boys clean the house, wake up before dawn to fetch water for drinking and bathing and polish his shoes, besides running errands to buy vegetables and grocery.

Cooking isn't among the family's daily chores. They live off bread and butter. It is repeatedly suggested that Raj, owing to the financial straits he is in, cannot put proper food on the table for his boys. Life goes on for the family, with the drama being provided by Rajkumar's bursts of fury and the boys' cowering response to his terrible mood swings.

Rajkumar's tea, strawberry and potato plantations have stopped yielding profits. He has not paid the salaries of the teachers of the school he owns. Despite his pretence of control, his personal life is in a shambles. The boys bear the brunt of his inadequacies.

Not that there are no respites available to the boys. They watch Baby's Day Out in a local cinema hall, borrow comics - everything from Phantom to Tintin - from the library and, especially when is dad is away, play with their pet - Kathy (Roxy), a male German Shepherd with a female name.

The dog, usually kept confined to a kennel behind the bungalow, figures in two important flashpoints in the film - one of them contains the first signs of resistance from the eldest son, the other causes great grief to all the four members of the family. But Naangal is not the kind of film that follows up on these turning points with more scenes marked by dramatic flourish. It is interested only in revealing the inner dynamics of dysfunctionality rather than playing them out in the open.

One of the boys sings a Tamil song about a King as he scrubs the toilet bowl. Dad walks in and demands to know if it is 100 per cent clean. It is 92 per cent clean, the boy pipes up, knowing full well no matter what he does his father will continue to find fault with his work.

When rage does not get the better of him, Rajkumar is the father figure he wants to be. He takes the boys out for dinner and even to a movie. The title that they choose - Toy Soldiers, a 1991 film - isn't without significance. The American film was about an all-male boarding school taken over by terrorists.

The house where Karthik, Gautham and Dhruv live is an all-male space where after nightfall the only sources of light are hurricane lamps, candles and the fireplace. During the day, light streams into the house through the windows only to dissipate as soon as the father steps into the frame. Colour ebbs away instantly.

The individual who could have been the brightest spot in the household, Rajkumar's wife, is conspicuous by her absence. She is not by her side to share the responsibility of keeping the house in order and raising the children. Her not being there is a crucial part of the reason why the boys have no cushion at all.

At one point in the film, at the turn of the millennium, the mother returns briefly. The film's tone and texture change immediately. The home brightens up, the colours begin to glow again and the family has a proper meal after ages. It is rounded off with gulab jamun.

Naangal is a monumental achievement - a dispassionate yet profoundly moving film that hits home with phenomenal force.


Abdul Rafe, Mithun, Rithik Mohan, Nithin Dinesh, Prarthana Srikaanth, John Edathattil, Vignesh Raja, Roxy and Kathy


Avinash Prakash