This review was updated on June 2, 2005.
Quietly lyrical “The Gravel Road,” Deepak Kumaran Menon’s first feature, observes life on a rubber estate with the kind of delicate attention to detail that recalls Satyajit Ray. A fine fest item, Malaysian drama may find wider offshore exposure limited by an ending whose sudden, florid tragedy will strike Western viewers as both incongruous and cliched.
Until then, however, Menon’s direction and Sooria Kumari’s script maintain a pleasing low key in sketching various overlapping character paths at the 1960s plantation where schoolgirl Shantha’s (Saratha) family has spent generations tapping the rubber tree forests.
But Shantha, an exemplary student, has aspirations to continue her studies at the university, an improbable goal for someone of her class. Her desires are also opposed by her parents, who are getting too old to support their many dependents alone, and whose finances are further strained by the need to provide an eldest daughter’s dowry. Shantha does her bit by working for a local seamstress, though that may not be enough. There’s also pressure from Narean (Saran), a longtime pal turned suitor, who fears they’ll never be married.
These and various subsidiary threads are deftly woven into a leisurely but ingratiating ensemble piece marked by gentle humor and handsome location photography. Only misstep is a calculated, tearjerker ending. While local auds may find the resolution appropriate, it will strike others as a heavy-handed betrayal of nuanced prior progress.
Pic is nation’s first Tamil-language feature, despite its considerable Malay-Indian minority, since only Malay-language efforts are at present eligible for government funding support.
Well-crafted “Gravel Road” looks none the worse for taking an indie path. Sound mix had its shrill aspects at screening caught.