Inhabiting a stylistic space somewhere between the Hindi mainstream and artier New Indian Cinema, Tamil helmer Mani Ratnam comes up with another enjoyable melange of socially aware entertainment with “A Peck on the Cheek,” centered on a 9-year-old Sri Lankan girl adopted by an Indian couple. Handsome widescreen values and generally strong performances make this a festival audience-pleaser for those seeking more realism than pure Bollywood offers.
Opening in northeast Sri Lanka “a few years ago,” film rapidly sketches an arranged but happy marriage between two Tamils who are then separated by war — he, Dileepan (Chakravarthy), to probable death, she, Shyarma (Nandita Das, from Deepa Mehta’s “Fire”), to a raft full of escapees. Shyarma ends up in a refugee camp in Rameswaram, India, where she gives birth to Amudha.
Flash forward “a few years later” to modern-day Chennai (formerly Madras), where Amudha (Keerthana) is now part of an extended family including writer father Thiri (Madhavan), mother Indra (Simran) and two children, Akhil and Vinay. Amudha is now a perky young tyke and, after an impressive montage number set at her school (along the lines of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”), her adoptive parents tell Amudha the truth about her origins, triggering a 40-minute flashback that also fills in the adults’ own backstory.
In company with her cousin, Pradeep, Amudha hightails it to Rameswaram to find her real mom, whom the camp authorities confirm came from Sri Lanka. Soon afterwards, Amudha and her parents fly to Colombo where, in a jolting scene, the kid is brought face to face with the ethnic violence still simmering on the island as the family tries to locate Shyarma with the help of a local friend, Harold Vikramasinghe (Prakashraj).
As in previous films (“Bombay,” “Iruvar”), Ratnam uses real-life political events as background to a basically mainstream movie, without explicitly taking sides in the ongoing conflict apart from a general favoring of the Tamil point-of-view. As the politically aware voice of the movie, the writer-father blames the troubles on developed countries selling weaponry, and espouses a general “why can’t we all live in peace?” philosophy.
However, the family drama is the thing here, and even the climax is handled in a largely unlachrymose way, with helmer’s favorite imagery of rain as an emotionally cleansing agent. It’s not a movie for anyone looking for a serious examination of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Aside from the wooden Madhavan, all thesps handle their roles naturally and with easy charm, especially Simran as Indra. As Amudha, young Keerthana shows considerable confidence without overstepping the line into annoying brattishness. Handful of songs by famed Chennai-based composer A.R. Rahman is smoothly incorporated. Pic was screened at Toronto fest without its intermission.