Disability & Parenting: Deivathirumagal
So after ages, I watched a Tamizh movie yesterday, one which I’d vaguely understood to be a ‘different’ movie. The strongest impression that I got after watching Deivathirumagal is that Indian audiences are far readier to move on beyond melodrama and lazy screenplays - than Indian producers and directors are.
This is not a review, and the movie has been out on screens for a few weeks now - so, there are going to be some spoilers here.
Deivathirumagal essentially revolves around a mentally challenged single father, Krishna and his fight for custody of his daughter, Nila. One of the issues here is that despite taking up a challenging subject like mental disability the movie shies away from really looking at it. And it is not mild disability; Krishna’s mental capabilities are pegged at that of a 5-year old.
One puzzling example of this half-heartedness is when we are told that the child’s mother, who dies in childbirth, left her home because she fell in love with Krishna. Without meaning any disrespect to mentally challenged individuals, one has to ask what drives an educated women from a super-rich family, to fall in love with a poor, mentally challenged man from a rural background. By not talking disability here, I could not understand what the director, Vijay, was trying to accomplish. Was he trying to say that disability is not a barrier to love (in which case, he could have been bold enough to say that), or did he just mean what a character in the movie says, that ‘modern girls’ are simply content with a good-looking man?
Then, there is the custody battle itself. What a splendid opportunity to examine the basic question: does an individual with a severe mental disability deserve to keep custody of his child? There are no easy answers here; as the Judge says in one scene, custody is not just about who deserves what - at its core is the question of the child’s welfare.
Examining this would not have made the movie ‘boring’ or ‘art-movie-type’. One of the loveliest things about the movie was how beautifully it showed the relationship between the father and the daughter - that despite his disability, Krishna copes with bringing up Nila, with the help of the small community they live in. Nila is shown as sprightly, intelligent and empathetic - and in a believable manner, not in the annoyingly perfect kid mode that Indian movies used to revel in. Given this relationship at the heart of the movie, it would not have made the movie any less interesting if it had dared to take on the custody question directly.
Instead, Krishna’s bumbling lawyer team spends all their time attempting to hide his disability from the court. Thereby killing the entire premise of the movie that a mentally challenged individual is still capable of many beautiful things, including parenthood.
Through the movie, the audience sat in rapt attention - and although the first half had little filmi romance or action, no one seemed to be missing it. Nor did people laugh at Krishna - there was laughter, but it was with him. That is a sea change, when you consider that 10-15 years ago, a character like this would likely have been the comedian on a sidetrack.
Which is why it’s sad that the director did not think his audience would be ready to look at the question of disability upfront - Nila’s custody is ultimately resolved through an emotional route. The judge/ court realises the depth of their love for each other, but the fundamental question stays unanswered. Until Krishna returns the child himself to her maternal relatives - as if acknowledging the limitation of his claims.
In a way, the director plays it safe - yes, a mentally challenged parent has a right to be a parent (and here he milks our tears by playing up their love), but no, he doesn’t really, as Krishna himself seems to acknowledge in the end.