In Sri Lanka, a country divided by religion and language, the civil war between the pro-Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist organization, has claimed an estimated 68,000 lives since 1983. Human rights groups have said that, as a result of the war, more than one million people have been displaced, homeless or living in camps. The impact on children and families caught in the conflict is sensitively dramatized by acclaimed Tamil director Mani Ratnam in his 2002 film A Peck on the Cheek, winner of several awards at the National Film Awards in India. While the civil war is merely a backdrop for the story of a young girl's voyage of discovery, the human cost of war is made quite clear and Ratnam gives the fighting a universal context, pointing the finger at global arms traffickers as the source of wrongdoing.
Beautifully photographed in Southern India by cinematographer Ravi K Chandran in a setting mirroring the terrain of Sri Lanka, the film tells a moving story about an adopted 9-year old girl who sets out to find her real mother in the middle of the fighting in Sri Lanka. Played with deep feeling and expressiveness by P.S. Keerthana in a memorable performance, Amudha is brought up by a loving middle class family with two younger brothers after her natural parents Shyama (Nandita Das) and Dileepan (J.D. Chakravarthi) were forced to flee when the fighting broke out, leaving her in a Red Cross camp. In a loving flashback, we see Amudha's adoptive parents, father Thiru (Madhavan) a prominent Tamil writer, and mother Indra (Simran) a TV personality, marry to facilitate their adoption of the darker-skinned little girl.
Young Amudha has no idea that she is adopted until it is sprung upon her abruptly on her ninth birthday, according to the parents' prior agreement. While she is playing, Thiru tells her almost in a matter of fact tone that "you are not our daughter" and the response is predictable. Distraught, she questions who her father was, what her mother's name was, why she gave her up, and so forth but few answers are forthcoming. Amudha runs away several times until her parents agree to go to Sri Lanka to help her find her true mother, now a fighter for the Tamil separatists. The family's immersion in the reality of the civil war leads to some traumatic moments and difficult decisions, handled mostly with skill by Ratnam, though a sequence where the family was caught in a crossfire felt amateurish.
A Peck on the Cheek is of course a Bollywood-style film and that means tons of music and melodrama. The melodrama did not get in the way because of the strong performances by the lead actors; however, I found the musical dramatizations of songs by A. R. Rahman counter to the mood of the film with their slick, high production techniques and fast-paced music video-style editing. Yet the compelling nature of the story and the honesty in which it is told transcend the film's limitations. Tamil cinema has been criticized by many, even within the country as being too clichéd and commercial, yet A Peck on the Cheek is both a film of entertainment and one that tackles serious issues. That it successfully straddles the line between art and commerce is not a rejection but a tribute.
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