Kudumbam Oru Kadambam is a 1981 Tamil drama film about the role of money and working women in 1980s Indian middle-class society.The film was remade in Kannada as Ananda Sagara starring Master Hirannayya, Aarathi, Srinivasamurthy, Jai Jagadish, Pramila Joshai and in Telugu as Manishiki Charithra with Chandramohan, Suhasini and Murali Mohan and in Hindi as Aaj Ka Daur with Jackie Shroff.
The film opens on an ordinary day in the lives of the families in a large apartment house in Chennai. Each family represents a different slice of early 1980s middle-class society. Kannan and Uma are a working couple. Kannan's father, retired from Government service, lives with them.
They enjoy the comforts of dual income, but their general lament is that their long work hours compel them to send their five-year-old daughter Priya to boarding school. The second couple comprises real estate agent Paramasivam and his homemaker wife Parvathi. Real estate in the early 1980s is not very profitable or progressive. Paramasivam and Parvathi enjoy a happy marriage, but Paramasivam's limited (and sporadic) income is barely able to meet household costs.
The third couple is Srinivasa Raghavan and Lakshmiammal. Fifty-five-year-old Srinivasa Raghavan is a worthless wastrel. In spite of a college education, he has never worked a day in his life. He chooses to roam about the city and engage in pointless banter with anyone he can find. Lakshmiammal works as a cook to earn a meager wage, but they frequently have to pawn their valuables to get by. Their son Madhu is an aspiring actor with dreams of making it big, and their daughter Mythili is still in high school.
Their everyday lives have ups and downs. Kannan and Uma work all through the week. Uma takes German lessons in the evenings. Their overburdened schedule permits them to see their daughter only on weekends, and as a result they gradually drift away from the needs of their child. As for Paramasivam, his income is squeezed by the down market or by crafty tenants (who collude with the owners and ultimately do not pay his commissions). Lakshmiammal works long hours in hot kitchens, and worries that her declining health might just give out one day.
There are some new arrivals. The first is Parvathi's brother Kumar. Kumar has recently graduated from college, and he arrives in Chennai to start a new job. He plans to stay with Parvathi for a few days until he finds a new place. The second arrival is Anandan, a mild-mannered young man. He used to work at a rice mill in Nagapatnam, but when the mill was destroyed in a cyclone, his employer transferred him to another job in Chennai. Anandan is happy to find another job, but despairs because he is away from his wife and children in Nagapatnam. He is not able to afford weekly trips to see his family. Lakshmiammal recognizes an opportunity and proposes a boarding arrangement. Anandan is happy to accept; Lakshmiammal's home cooked food is healthier and cheaper than eating out every day.
The families are faced with various crises. Kannan's father discovers that Lakshmiammal has been visiting a hospital to treat an emerging tuberculosis ailment caused by long exposure to cooking flames. Kannan's father discreetly informs Mythili that Lakshmiammal must not continue working. Mythili drops out of school and starts working at a palatial mansion in the city. (Her job is not revealed, but it is strongly suggested that she may be working as an escort for a rich man.) The job, however, pays quite well and Mythili anonymously sends a portion of the money to her mother. Srinivasa Raghavan remains oblivious or apathetic to the whole situation.
Kannan and Paramasivam are also faced with trouble. Uma receives a promotion at work. Kannan is unable to accept that his wife makes more money. Priya continues to drift away from her parents, and refuses to come home for Diwali. When Parvathi suddenly becomes pregnant, she is forced to abort because of their strained financial situation. Paramasivam is stricken cold by the fact that he did not have cash for the cab to bring his wife to the hospital. Uma, Parvathi and Lakshmiammal individually ponder the central questions of the film — the role of money and the role of working women in the new society order.
Their troubles escalate. Kannan dreams that Uma is seduced by her German boss, and that she will eventually leave him. Paramasivam is compelled to borrow money, at exorbitant interest, from a loan shark. Parvathi is deeply grieved to learn this. Lakshmiammal follows Mythili and assumes the worst when she sees that a car is sent to fetch Mythili every day. She breaks down in tears before Srinivasa Raghavan. When Srinivasa Raghavan angrily question Mythili, she retorts that he, having never provided for the family, has no fatherly rights to ask about her business.
The men set about evaluating their situation. Kannan and Uma decide that their child is a higher priority than additional income, and Uma accordingly resigns from her job. Kannan's father provides additional support by way of his retirement income. Paramasivam finally agrees to let Parvathi get a real job. And Srinivasa Raghavan, stung by his daughter's criticism, sets off to find work. Undaunted by rejection from various offices, he finally earns a day's wages by working on the docks.
He returns home with dignity. Now that he has restored his station as a father, he claims the right to question Mythili. He bluntly asks if she has been prostituting herself. Mythili takes him to the palatial mansion. She reveals that the lady of the house has been stricken with a paralysing disease and that Mythili's job is to help her with her daily duties. Mythili breaks into sobs, saying she has not done anything to dishonor the family.
Harmony is restored to just about everyone. Anandam, in tragicomic irony, is suddenly transferred away to Dindigul just as he has found a job for his wife in Chennai. His wife now takes his place in the apartment and writes to him every week. The film ends with the missive that money is required for life but life must not be entirely consumed by money.