Poppy: A heartwarming tale of two broken lives

Prerna Mittra
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While Poppy insists Aditi join the school choir despite her speech impediment, Aditi nudges and encourages Poppy to share her dreams.

Inside a nondescript and eerily quiet library, a woman’s attention is caught by a man who walks in and takes a seat opposite hers. As she longs for him to meet her gaze, the ringing of a mobile phone takes her by surprise. Before long, people begin to look at her angrily. The scene cuts to an elderly woman waking up to persistent rings of her phone. She had been dreaming.

On the other end of the line is her absentee son, promising to call, visit soon – a customary conversation that lets on the fact that the woman is not just alone, but also awfully lonely. Her life is established in a series of subsequent shots that show her going about her day in a picturesque countryside in Kerala. When she notices a family move into the neighbourhood, you can tell she's pleased. But, she is hesitant to make their acquaintance. Cared for by a house help, she spends her days drinking coffee, looking after her plants and visiting the temple. Inside her house is a vast collection of books; at night, old Hindi songs keep her company.

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This is in juxtaposition with the life of a fifth grader, who has moved into the house opposite hers. She has her own story — there’s a father, a brother, the picture of a mother taped to the mirror, and a stammering problem. The dinners are quiet; the longing for a friend is intense, as is the desire to make it to the school choir.

The Malayalam short film Poppy, which released last month, is a fresh tale of an unlikely familiarity portrayed adeptly by the ever graceful Leela Samson — who plays the eponymous character — and newcomer Nakshatra Indrajith. Two lives, different generations, both experiencing its own hurt and ache, come together and try to fill each other’s voids. While the trope is not new, the way the movie pans out is heartbreakingly beautiful.

The charming rural setting of Kerala plays to the sensibilities of the characters as they find unequivocal warmth and empathy in each other’s company. Even when it rains, Samson’s ‘Poppy/Padmaja’ and Indrajith’s ‘Aditi’ find the joie de vivre in simple tête-à-têtes over squirrel-bitten guavas – which Poppy says is the best way to tell the ripe ones from the unripe ones – and rose milk. In the backdrop, her hauntingly persistent and recurring dreams of a library, a man, and a woman yearning to strike a conversation, keep playing.

Poppy, short film Poppy, indian express, indian express news

Even when it rains Samson’s ‘Poppy/Padmaja’ and Indrajith’s ‘Aditi’ find the joie de vivre in simple tête-à-têtes over squirrel-bitten guavas and rose milk.

While Poppy insists Aditi join the school choir despite her speech impediment, the child nudges and encourages the former to share her dreams. The conversations run parallel, and never in isolation. Which is why Poppy tugs at your heartstrings with a strange post-operative daze, without even trying too hard. And just when the endearment begins to grow on you, the plot pulls a somersault, leaving questions unanswered, albeit with an odd sense of closure: were you witnessing it from the prism of a solitary life led by a septuagenarian, or living it with the burbling hope of a quiet child?

Debutant director Sudharshan Narayanan breaks it down for the indianexpress.com. “Writer Aishwarya Raajkumar had written a story set in Chennai, based on her memories and interactions with her grandmother, who was called ‘Poppy’,” he tells us. He adds, “I never asked her what her real name was. I didn’t ask Aishwarya how much of the story is real and how much of it is fiction. I just wanted to change a few things, mainly the setting to countryside in Kerala. The story was called ‘The Dream’ when I received it. But, after I wrote the screenplay, new characters came in and the personalities started changing. That is when I realised that I had written it to be around this character Poppy.”

While the film darts between Poppy’s reality and dreams — her agony at having to wake up just as the woman in the library gets chatty with the man — Narayanan says she had actually been seeing herself. “Poppy keeps dreaming about meeting this man in a library. She is trying hard to identify this person, but is not able to. In reality, she keeps looking at her husband’s library and an empty chair, because she misses him too much. This was another point to stress on the loneliness angle.”

Poppy, short film Poppy, indian express, indian express news

The film darts between Poppy’s reality and dreams — her agony at having to wake up just as the woman in the library gets chatty with the man.

And what about the speech impediment? "The stammering was part of the character since the very first draft. I never questioned it or asked the writer for a justification as I thought it is a nice device to play with. We all have our own problems, and in life, we all want to overcome them. This character (Aditi) stammers but wants to sing. Isn’t that ironic? We always want the things that we don’t/can’t have. In Ship Of Theseus (a movie by Anand Gandhi), there is a character who is a visually-impaired photographer. But, after she gets her vision back, she’s not satisfied with the images she is taking now. It’s a little odd, right? Such is life, I guess," he says.

While regional films continue to produce gems, regional cinema has not yet been given its due. As a newcomer, Narayanan feels that it is time lingual barriers are broken, and content from all over the country is explored. "It is important for people to be watching stories from all over India. We are lucky to have such diversity, and I feel like we should be doing a better job at embracing it. All these so called 'small/regional industries' are whipping out some fantastic films and it is all drowning, because they don’t have the money to market it to such a level where everyone is aware".

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Poppy's cinematography has been done by Vishnu Dev, and music has been given by Govind Vasantha. The film was a finalist at the KathaFest International Photo And Film Festival in Nepal, and semi-finalist at the Jaipur Film World 2020. It is available on YouTube.