Direction: Lakshmy Ramakrishnan
Cast: Sriranjani, Aadukalam Kishore, Lovelyn Chandrasekhar, Pasanga Kishore
Tamil director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan makes movies that talk about real people and their dilemmas. Her 2016 Ammani took us to a hospital ward where Salamma is a maid who is about to retire, but her family plays shark out to grab her provident fund. Her anxiety is not very dissimilar to the pangs which Ramakrishnan's latest protagonist, Radha (Sriranjani), suffers in House Owner, a 100-minute odyssey through a calamitous rain which smashed Chennai out of shape in 2015.
Much like Salamma, Radha's worry relates to her family, her husband, Vasu (Aadukalam Kishore), in particular, who has been down with Alzheimer’s for five years. A retired army general – used to giving orders, not taking them – he wears the same attitude on his sleeve later in life. He barks his commands driving Radha round the bend, and she does not even complain, realising the seriousness of his disease and the futility of countering him. Instead, she gently coaxes him to go through the day's rituals – have your bath, say your prayers and eat your food. When he grows too adamant, she dangles the carrot. No bath, no food, and the celebrated general, once revered and admired, turns into a little baby. What is very sad about the whole situation is his inability to recognise his own wife, and it pains her.
Vasu's condition has taken him back in time. He merely remembers the distant past, of a time when Radha was a little girl (played by Lovelyn Chandrasekhar), and he himself was not much older (Pasanga Kishore). In fact, the film begins with their wedding, and the first years of their marital bliss, when he teaches Radha to become a confident young woman. She learns English, how to swim and how to play the game of carrom. There is one very sweet scene (which though is lit up rather unimaginatively) of Vasu holding her hand, leading her to a dance floor and gently pushing her to take the first few steps in a Western classical form.
Later, it is Vasu's education that comes handy for Radha, who learns to take control of her life gone haywire with a husband who seems to be sinking. But when the skies open up in Chennai, Radha begins to feel the hopelessness in the fight for survival.
House Owner is poignant and remarkably restrained with a superb performance by Sriranjani, who portrays tremendous fortitude when dealing with a very cantankerous partner. But she misses a step when the disaster rushes into her house by appearing a trifle too calm. Perhaps, she is a tad underwhelming here, when those moments called for a little more drama. Aadukalam Kishore walks through his part and does not seem to make a mark. The younger Vasu/Pasanga Kishore is more interesting.
While Ramakrishnan's tryst with nature's fury pans out with a kind of realism that is undoubtedly admirable in today's Tamil cinema (with its exaggerated nuances), House Owner does appear somewhat flat in patches. Those scenes with water leaking into the house through the roof, and, eventually, when the floods gush in turning the living room into unimaginable disarray, a bit of histrionics could have heightened the effect of fear and panic. House Owner ends on a rather tame note. Yes, I did not expect a Titanic, but the pendulum was a little too close to the other end.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)