A Peck on the Cheek

11/29/2009

India / 2002 / Tamil & Sinhala

Directed by Mani Ratnam

With P.S. Keerthana, Madhavan, Simran, Nandita Das

Still from 'A Peck on the Cheek'A young couple from Northern Sri Lanka has just been wed in an arranged marriage. She is coy, he is a bit loutish, and everything in this bucolic, rural setting is going according to plan. The husband, Dhileepan, says that he does not want to bring a child into the world until the conflict in their country has been resolved. Nonetheless Shyama, the wife, becomes pregnant, but is forced to leave the village when the army attacks, all the inhabitants displaced. While Dhileepan is wounded and forced to take refuge in the forest, Shyama leaves with her family and many others in a rickety, overflowing boat headed for India. And there, at a refugee camp in Rameswaram, she is wracked by labor pains.

Nine years later, and in a very different environment, we are introduced to a young girl named Amudha. Her adoptive parents are a pair of well-to-do Chennaikars who have so far kept her in the dark about her origins. They rescued her from the Red Cross hospital where Shyama left her, days after her birth. When they finally tell this to Amudha, her reaction channels all of the pain and political strife, latent and unknown to her, out of which she was, in fact, born. Twice she runs away from home, the second time making it all the way to the place where Shyama gave birth to her at the refugee camp. There in Rameswaram, which is very much at the edge of the land, Amudha, now painfully aware of her own landlessness, stands on a beach that juts out into the sea. It is a stark image, cut short when her father approaches to retrieve her.

Amudha demands to be taken to Sri Lanka to meet her biological mother, and her parents feel that they are bound oblige her. There they come face to face with the violence and horror that has torn apart both the landscape and the national psyche for a generation. But Amudha’s insistence on finding Shyama endures, even as she becomes acquainted with suicide bombing, a stifling military presence, and the sadness of a profoundly scarred nation.

Still from 'A Peck on the Cheek'Early on, director Ratnam establishes Amudha as a formidable personality and not simply an emotional bargaining chip to the film’s melodramatic premise. She is strong, troublesome without being troubling, almost tomboyish. There is something strikingly genuous about her and the other characters’ moods in situations that hit them at their core. When, under cover of darkness, a band of girl soldiers her own age confront her with automatic weapons in the forest, she feels terrified by more than the fear of the moment. Like a ghostly tiger sighting, she has glimpsed the lives of those whose very beings are the product of conflict.

By virtue of both its maturity and its flamboyance, A Peck on the Cheek is successful at negotiating the seemingly incongruous worlds of socially conscious storytelling and elastic musicality – considerably more so than the heavy-handed paroxysms of Ratnam’s later biopic Guru (2007). Even when the narrative is interrupted for a hyperactive song or slow-motion action sequence (he is a mainstream Indian filmmaker after all), the level of absurdity is distinctly muted, everything presented very much within the psychological realm of the characters. While maintaining the perspective at the level of the young girl amplifies the film’s expressional tenor, it also falls short of examining the implicit disparity in the bourgeois family seeking out a woman entrenched in the strife of guerilla warfare, who has seen little else besides struggle. Ratnam seems to be trying to reconcile this duality by exploring an emotional connection, and perhaps mollifying his own anxiety about, as a filmmaker, exhibiting a pat self-righteousness in regards to the problem.

Amudha recognizes a bridge between herself and her fellow Tamil people in Sri Lanka; obviously their lot is different from those whom she grew up around in her privileged city upbringing, but they are still Tamil. What more could matter? And of course the distinction is clear to us. She wants to see where she came from but, having been flung into the chaos and bloodshed, it is clear that she could never join the displaced masses as they walk, exhausted, from camp to camp.

Still from 'A Peck on the Cheek'It is the inherent difference between the girl (and Ratnam himself, for that matter) and the people in Sri Lanka, the immateriality of biological connection in comparison to upbringing and social ties, that represent the figurative gulf between the Tamil people of India and their brethren across the water writ large. While they share a common ethnicity (the girl’s adoptive father, Thiru, escapes a beating by hostile guerilla fighters by reciting some lines of Tamil poetry), their respective experiences are worlds apart.

Amudha’s presumptions of similarity through blood relation are equated with those of the well-meaning liberals who brought her into their lives. Thiru is a writer who bases short stories on the lives of people he knows, including the real-life story of his daughter’s adoption. Being distanced from the world out of which their daughter came, it seems like fiction to them. The reality is that they saved her from a life of misery and so has grown up on one side of a great divide. While Shyama would no doubt be happy that her daughter was granted such a fate, she would surely not wish herself to be taken to such a world of complacency, so far from the sphere of political resistance that she has known for so long. Ratnam does not spare the Indian family from the violence which they could not have imagined from their comfortable origins in India, and implicates them, innocent but not conscious of the pain being felt elswhere in the world.

The young girl’s idealism points to Ratnam’s own reductive yearning for the gap of experience between those inside the conflict and those outside to be closed, once the killing has ended. The characters predicate much of their opinion of Shyama, and the resultant pressures directed upon her, on the link between her and her daughter. (Why did they not search as painstakingly for her father as well?). Amudha, through her own feelings of abandonment from having grown up with Indian parents, cannot see that it is war that brought her there, not her mother.

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