“Neethane En Ponvasantham”… The loving daylights

Posted on December 17, 2012

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A title card, at the beginning of Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Neethane En Ponvasantham, tells us that we are going to be shown “moments from Varun and Nithya’s love story” – the couple is played by Jiiva and Samantha – but that’s a little misleading, and it’s hardly a USP. Every love story, on screen or off, is but a distillation of key moments, the highlights – the first meeting, or the fight by the beach. Menon’s film has these moments, of course, but the USP of this film is that it’s about why, exactly, these moments come about. The title card should have said “the acutely observed, minutely deconstructed, obsessively detailed, leisurely laid-out reasons for these moments from Varun and Nithya’s love story.” With Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (which is gamely spoofed here) and now this film, Menon has liberated the love story – as Imtiaz Ali has done in Bollywood – from simply hewing to the trajectory between boy-meets-girl and and-they-lived-happily-ever-after. The director is no longer the friendly family physician, ensuring that the heart will go on. He is, instead, a pathologist, inspecting this infection called love for symptoms and malign manifestations. It’s not for the faint of heart.

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The film begins pleasantly enough, when Varun and his friend Prakash (Santhanam, whose comedy, though funny, is a wee bit off in terms of tone) entering college. We see the “Welcome Freshers” sign, and, later, we are shown snatches from an inter-college festival – girls in ethnic-print skirts executing amateurish steps (which look inspired by film choreography) to a beat-heavy “north Indian number,” and Varun singing Neethane en ponvasantham (from Ninaivellam Nithya) in a palpably unpolished voice (the director’s). These moments are cut like vignettes (like everything else in the movie) – we zoom in and zoom out at points chosen by the director, without necessarily segueing smoothly from one scene to the next – and they ring true. And unlike, say, Alaipaayuthey (which is referenced here, inside a theatre), where the hero sets eyes on an unknown heroine and is struck by emotion, the hero and heroine here already have a history. At the college fest, Varun and Nithya walk up to each other and we slip into a flashback.

This is the first time we sense the awkwardness between them, the push-pull nature of their relationship, and this flashback shows us why. We visit Varun and Nithya as children, when he inflicts on her the first of many (real and imagined) slights. Then we sight them in Class X, at a tuition centre, him with faint fuzz on his upper lip, her with bangs. (Both Jiiva and Samantha are completely convincing as adolescents.) It’s a long flashback, a long foundation to a falling-in-love – and Menon employs Ilayaraja’s Vaanam mella over a long time. We hear a stanza and cut to a conversation or an incident and then the next part of the song follows. While this flashback clues us, conclusively, to the kind of storytelling we’re in for – heavily conversational, and dipping into the psychological (Nithya goes on to study psychology, and her theory about “core personality” is finally proved both right and wrong) – it also hints that, despite being promised “an Isaignani Ilayaraja musical,” this film may not be a musical after all.

For now, though, it’s fascinating to learn about Varun and Nithya, partly because they are like us – at least the “us” whose growing-up years revolved around PSBB and WCC – and looking at them stumble through life, some of us may feel we finally know where we went wrong, what we could have done to make things right with friends and family and loved ones. The bright light of realisation, for the most part, falls upon us through hindsight, and in Varun and Nithya we see at least a semblance of our own selves from the past. These are vividly etched characters and they are marked by their imperfections. With Nithya, for instance, we get the sense that she takes Varun for granted. She loves him, sure, but from her position of privilege, she seems either unaware or content not to be aware of his life beyond her. She wants to affix herself to all aspects of his life. (“I too will join IIM coaching class. “I too will come with you to Kozhikode.”) And we wonder if she’s ever going to give him his own space, to find himself.

And there’s a streak of selfishness in them. When he says he’s leaving for Kozhikode and tells her not to make him her all, she bursts out that she chose him over her friends, and now he’s abandoning her. (Or maybe this achiever in school is just resentful of the fact that now he’s the one who has it all figured out, regarding life and love and career, while she’s left with no certainties but her love for him.) Later, he too blames her unfairly when he says he joined her upscale school to be with her, adding that his middle-class father had to fork out all that extra money – he conveniently ignores the reality that he, not she, was responsible for this extra burden on his father. This equal-opportunity blame-game – “look at all the sacrifices I made for you; one, two, three, four…” – that makes insufferable martyrs of men and women in love is beautifully brought out in Neethane En Ponvasantham. I don’t recall, offhand, too many films that get so down-and-dirty with love, which is almost always treated as something exalting and ennobling, purer than pure.

Varun’s father is not on screen all that much, but he registers as a fully formed character. He’s a schoolteacher, and when learns that his oldest son, Harish, has finally landed a job, he jokes about wanting plane tickets to Singapore. That’s the height of his ambition, to take his wife to Singapore, on a plane, and beneath the humour we see the sacrifices this man has had to make for his three sons. We see why Varun has a constant chip on his shoulder about his background, what it must have meant to him in school when he boasted to Nithya that he was going to Yercaud for the holidays and she replied, after a pause, that she was off to Australia. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, towards the end, he sees her by an unfamiliar car and asks if it’s new. She says no, it’s her sister’s. And then, only then, does he point to the car behind and say that it’s his, that he’s finally arrived. (You can hear him think, in that instant, “Holy crap, I’ve finally come to a place in life where I can park my own vehicle in front of this ancient, paint-peeled apartment complex, and she’s already moved on to another car!”)

And yet, these class issues are not thrown at us, and they’re not treated as magnets for melodrama. Varun, in the first flush of love, qualmlessly accepts from Nithya rides in her car, a cell phone, an expensive shirt. We don’t see him, as we might in another movie, hesitate to take these gifts, a neon-lit thought bubble hovering over his head alerting us to his “issues.” Later, Harish falls for a girl and takes his family to meet hers, and they return home insulted about their grinding middle-classness – and instead of being shown this scene (with its potential for juicy drama, instantly capable of extracting tears of sympathy from us for Varun and his family), we get the quiet aftermath. In a lovely stretch, we see how the members of this family care about each other, how they take things in their stride, and – most importantly – why Varun finally decides to do something about this class issue. Even later, when his father’s dream of a foreign trip, on a plane, is fulfilled, we don’t see the man in tears, clutching an airline ticket with trembling hands. We are just told, in passing, that the man’s in Melbourne.

And in this dramatically detached – at least to the extent that a mainstream Tamil film can let itself be – universe, some of the song sequences feel like miscalculations. Mudhal murai is too heavy a number for the situation, a ton of bricks dropping on us out of nowhere. Kaatrai konjam, which sounds lovely as an audio-only experience, is shot as if a sailor were returning to his beloved after months out at sea, whereas Varun, here, is meeting Nithya after years, and after no communication whatsoever. Where’s the tentativeness, the misgivings whether so headstrong a woman will welcome him back into her life? And when she doesn’t – no surprise there – he decides to clown around in a bus, singing Ennodu vaa vaa. This kind of giving-the-audience-a-bathroom-break song picturisation belongs in the kind of movie where Varun’s father would break down upon receiving that ticket to Melbourne. Given Varun’s sensitivity and given that Nithya, upon seeing him again, has crumbled to pieces, how does this tomfoolery fit in? And Pengal endraal, a rant against women, feels reductive and redundant in a film whose every emotion is already being expressed in words. But Sattru munbu fits in beautifully. The song is intense, and the scene over which it plays comes to us as a shock. (A woman in the theatre I saw the film in exclaimed, “Oh my God.”)

Menon’s ear for good music hasn’t always been backed by a knack for appropriate song picturisation, and in a film like this, so nuanced and dialogue-heavy, these lapses make themselves extremely conspicuous. Neethane En Ponvasantham is the kind of film that will likely be dismissed by those who say: “But why do you have to talk about everything? Why do you have to analyse every little feeling so much?” But that is the film’s uniqueness. Like Cameron Crowe or Imtiaz Ali, Menon is a sensitive male who believes in  shaping thoughts and feelings into words, many words, and then analysing them with a microscope. This film is essentially about its conversations, and the songs keep cutting in. But these conversations are marvelously alive and acute, and they stay with us long after the film ends – the way Nithya makes Varun squirm, early on, or when she asks him, later, if she’s just a check box that he needs to fill out to complete his life; or in his case, when he tells her that had he taken her with him to Kozhikode, she wouldn’t be doing what she’s doing today, leaving her bristling at the implication that he’s responsible for the way her life has turned out.

These conversations stand out not just for what they reveal about these characters but also in how they are worded. Even a simple line of Nithya’s – “Can we meet… ippo?” – is freighted with regret about the past, fear about the future. (That pause is everything.) If you’re the ruthlessly practical sort, you may say, “Oh, but why didn’t he explain things to her during their fight on the terrace? Surely she would have seen sense and they would have stayed together.” But we don’t always do the right things, the most sensible things, and it becomes worse when the situation is loaded with his class issues and her clinginess, which he has to shake free from if he’s to become his own person. A lot things fall into place in retrospect, whether the minor bits like the shot of Varun playing cricket as a child coming to inform an intense conversation he has with Nithya much later, or the major ones like what happened to his job when he took off, apparently on a lark, to visit Nithya and stay near her.

For all the talk, Varun and Nithya hold back important things, and the film is also about how being in love is a little different from trusting someone enough to bare yourself completely. After mountains of misunderstanding, Nithya asks Varun, very simply, why he never spoke to her about his family. These aren’t the kind of shades we usually see in our love stories – and again, this scene is presented with minimum fuss; he doesn’t respond with a “Chha, if only…” speech. That’s why the ending feels odd, a little misogynistic even. For a film that has apportioned blame to both parties for the state of their relationship, it feels strange that she’s the one left asking for forgiveness, as if he had nothing to do with anything. We are made to recall that each time they broke up, it was on her suggestion, but the truth is that she suggested breaking up because of the things he did. Perhaps, whatever the kind of film, the heroine has to bow before the hero. There are times we wonder what the film would have been like without Tamil-cinema compromises, but Menon does much that’s right here, taking off where Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya left off and continuing to explore the prickly fascination between men and women. By the end, Varun is so exhausted that he cannot even summon up the energy to express the extent of his feelings for Nithya. “I hate you,” he says flatly, as  if asking for directions to the mall. Of course, he doesn’t really hate her. He just wishes he could go on without constantly getting burned by her. The film should have been called Neethane En Poison Ivy.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.