A Film a Week - Metro Maalai

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
Statistics say that roughly 7% of the population of Malaysia, 1.9 million people, are of Tamil origins. Community that big must be dynamic and is somewhat integrated to the society, although its cultural representation could be wider. "Metro Maalai", the debut feature written and directed by Haran Kaveri and Shobaan, revolves around a hint of romance between a Malaysian Tamil man and Indian Tamil woman in Kuala Lumpur. We got it through our Submit Your Film program.

"Metro Maalai" is structured in chapters, chronicling the romance between the anonymous guitarist (first-timer Satish Kumar) and a married woman Nithya (Punitah Shanmugam). First two chapters serve as an introduction where we meet our characters and their daily life routines. The guitarist is recovering from a painful break-up from his girlfriend, trying to land as much gigs as possible in precarious work conditions to survive the harsh economy, but also the loneliness. On the other side, we have Nithya, a bored housewife who feels lonely in her marriage with workaholic businessman Jay who does not care much about her needs and feelings. Unlike the guitarist's precarious living conditions, hers could be described as financially stable, but the detail of a caged parrot in her modern and tastefully decorated apartment serves as an on-the-nose metaphor to remind the viewers that Nithya strives for freedom she cannot achieve.

Their meet-cute moment happens around the 35 minute mark after one of his gigs in the bar and the two hit off really well over the course of dinner and a long walk along the river bank. She keeps visiting his gigs and the two spend more and more time together. But Nithya is conflicted between her cosy life and the new passion she finds in the man whose name she does not know. And her husband's job opportunity might take her far away, all the way to Germany.

The amateur approach of both writer-directors is obvious right from the start and the introductory title card where they thank the universe. The trouble is that the romance never gets past the superficial level because we never learn much more about the characters outside the most general data about their cultures and class affiliations. Unfortunately, the duo does not get deep enough into it to make something out of it, so the motivation of the female character is shaky at best. In the end she comes out as yet another woman who does not know what she wants in life, and he as a victim of her hesitancy.

Acting is probably the best thing in the film, since Kumar is quite natural in his role (as it can be the case with non-professional actors), and Shanmugam works her best with a roughly drawn character, usually avoiding the contraptions of over-acting. The two even show some chemistry, which is a success in a screenplay that plays too safe from page one on.

The directing solutions also seem a bit random, and they rarely work, which is obvious with the succession of hand-held and static shots. Fortunately, the duo was lucky enough to hit the right tone and emotion at certain places, like when they employ abrupt cuts, for which the editor Gogularaajan Rajendran should be commended, in the scene of the couple's first dinner together and the subsequent scene of their walk filmed in one long take, giving the sense of real time and channelling the energy of Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise".

The cinematography by David Yanez can be attractive, especially in some of the aerial shots of urban vistas, but those situational shots are few and far between. Kaber Vasuki's music, combining the acoustic guitar occasionally with electronic beat is not problematic per se, but is overused throughout the film, while the sound design is so obviously artificial that it seems completely fake, making "Metro Maalai" more a rough sketch than a proper movie experience.

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