PaNNaiyArum padminiyum - Musings on Ownership.
As you have heard, the car is everyone's. The entire village loves it. Kids ride it, the postman does his beat in it, atleast one corpse is transported on its roof, infants are delivered in it and what not.
But, while the film does make the most out of a - weakened by overuse - Tamil film trope: 'the good, simple people of the village' , what makes it special is that, it engages with the touchy question of 'ownership' quite well. The film is particular about acknowledging the sense of unease in precisely what is not articulated: that the car is not everyone's. It IS private property after all. And that there are degrees of ownership and claims that each have over it and which they want to defend against the claim of an 'other' - an other perceived as an outsider with a lesser claim. Or an other having a greater claim, which makes one insecure. Or an other having without deserving, a greater claim.
For starters, the paNNaiyAr himself just happens to be a caretaker of the car - that belongs to a friend of his. He is far more taken by it than the 'owner' himself is. But then he can't drive it. It is Murugesan who drives everyone, himself and - whenever he happens to need it - the paNNaiyAr too. It is the paNNaiyArammA - the voice of reason - who consciously checks herself from being enamoured by it, as it needs to be returned.
Later in the movie, when the 'legitimate' owner of the car waves it off as a non-matter - pleasantly easing the dramatic tension - the paNNaiyAr couple insist on somehow paying for the car to legitimise their ownership.
The paNNaiyArammA defends the car against a potential claimant - her own daughter - whose ideas about ownership claims in general, are depicted beautifully. And when she finally loses the car to the daughter, the paNNaiyArammA does come out and say she misses it. One can't help but think she would have missed it had the car been taken back by the original owner - something Murugesan spots before the paNNaiyAr himself does - but wouldn't've said it aloud, as it was 'wrong' to get too attached to what you didn't own. But now, having rightfully bought it - even though the payment's quid-pro-quo nature is verbally vehemently denied by both payer and payee - she finds it acceptable to possess and articulate the feeling of missing it.
Murugesan's claim over the car is portrayed in some level of detail. He indeed has a larger claim over it than the rest of the village. But the limitation of his own judgement is also depicted well. He attempts to keep the car's physical inadequacies to the inner circle, hidden from the village. But, he is put in place by a fellow villager, whose fondness for the vehicle, is beyond just appreciating it as a shiny common toy. A common villager from the 'outer circle' cares for the 'suffering' car as much as the rightful owners would, and defines his own 'outer' circle, from whom the inadequacies of the car should be kept secret. Of course, the impression we are left with is that, there probably is no such 'outer circle' in the village. There is noone who would not empathise with the 'owners', when the car is not keeping well. The notion of 'our car, whose honour needs to kept up before the others - reveals more about the one claiming ownership.
The film does dwells considerably on the issue that looms large: Murugesan's claims over the car are merely what the generous paNNaiyAr allow them to be.
There is a specific scene devoted to underlining this - where Murugesan articulates his insecurity, stirred by the paNNaiyAr using the exclusive possessive 'my' instead of 'our'. His suffering sidekick Peedai keeps reassuring him of the paNNaiyAr's generosity. But Murugesan's attachment to the car is so deep that this is nary reassurance, so much so that the scene ends with Peedai - tired of his fruitless attempts to reassure him - saying aloud that, at the end of the day, the car isn't his and it indeed IS the paNNaiyAr's to share or not. It is to the credit of debutant director that the scene manages to be funny, taking the bite off when actually airing the truth that was dare not spoken out.
Murugesan rests only when he manages to extract an assurance from the paNNaiyAr - whose generosity seems boundless and yet credible - that he will continue to have access to the car always. It seems obvious to the paNNaiyAr that Murugesan's claim over the car goes without saying. And yet, it is obvious to others - notably the paNNaiyAr's daughter - when Murugesan has overdrawn his claim on the car. For that matter, it is obvious to Murugesan himself as he does lie by omission about his usage, only to have the paNNaiyAr lying to defend him, pretending to have grant him that claim ex-post. The pretence is only of having articulated the extent of Murugesan's claim. As he clarifies angrily in the very next scene, the car was Murugesan's for whichever way he wanted to use.
Later, the paNNaiyAr cannot bring himself to borrow the car back from his daughter for the one occasion he wanted to 'own' the car for. That he deigned to make that request is itself sufficiently annoying to the paNNaiyAramma. The idea of being granted ownership at the behest of her daughter's generosity, is a reversal too unacceptable for her. Both the paNNaiyAr and Murugesan are insistent on denying the fact that the car was gone for good. The paNNaiyAr blames the indirectness of his request - giving himself the room to continue to believe, he could have borrowed the car back from his daughter, if he had been insistent. In a beautiful moment when the paNNaiyArammA tries to console Murugesan that "we (நாம) will buy another car shortly and he needn't worry", he reassures her that their ('நம்ம) car is after all with her daughter, who would surely lend it back when we 'need' it.
Everyone in the scene knows that having to demonstrate/justify the 'need' in order to have a claim is the most difficult part of the situation when one has ceded ownership. Indeed, the daughter who took the car, was just as miffed by what she considered was unjustified usage of the car by Murugesan, as much as she was motivated by a desire for the car - which she believes she has a 'right' to, regardless of need.
The film almost invites one to muse about the consumerist culture itself and its relegation of the consideration of 'need' in the question of consumption choices. The film is set presumably in the early-mid 90s but the film's universe is conspicuously untouched by a hyperconsumerist culture. Rather unambitiously, the film uses voice-over to have the narrator, express a point-of-view which seems to be film's too, that the memories of something shared and consumed is going to override - pardon the pun - any creature comforts that life has afforded one the luxury of acquiring later.
The best note about ownership the film makes - although it is little more than a dramatic indulgence- is the one it reserves for the very last, an act of repudiation of such an ownership itself.