OCT 7, 2005 – THE FIGHT SEQUENCE AT THE CLIMAX of a Tamil masala movie is truly the gladiatorial combat of our age – you know the movie has worked when the inevitable good-guy-bad-guy fistathon happens and you’re baying for the bad guy’s blood. You’ve been appalled by all the bad things that have happened to the good guy – think Kaakha Kaakha, to name a recent example – and you don’t want the bad guy to merely die, you want him to die after being ground to pulp, bloody pulp.
By that yardstick, Ghajini just didn’t do it for me. When hero Sanjay (Suriya) finally takes on villain Lakshman (a bland Pradeep Rawat) and his twin – the latter is a sorry add-on to the story; he exists solely so that the special effects guys can have fun sending two bad guys flying into the air instead of one – I just sat there deadened, partly because my ears had lost some hearing thanks to Harris Jayaraj’s deafeningly overdone soundtrack, and partly because the initially-intriguing premise had long since degenerated into an utterly generic masala. (The only difference is that there’s no separate comedy track; we have to make do with howlers as when a cop looks at a phone number and brilliantly deduces, “Indha number-la ten digits irukku. This must be a cell phone number.”)
In a gimmick borrowed from Memento, Sanjay suffers from short-term memory loss – every fifteen minutes, his memory becomes a blank slate; so if he, say, met someone fifteen minutes ago, the sixteenth minute he’s forgotten who that person is. How fascinating, then, that such a character should go about avenging a loss that he doesn’t even recall much of – can’t you imagine director Shankar salivating at this high-concept! – while being helped by a medical student (an annoying, overweight Nayantara, whose rolls of fat appear to be doing a Mexican Wave across her waist in a song sequence!
For attempting such a twisty narrative within the confines of commercial cinema – as well as for injecting some socially-relevant elements (as he did in the far superior Ramana) – director Murugadoss is surely deserving of the cinematic equivalent of the Param Vir Chakra. But why does such a well-intentioned and obviously talented filmmaker – when Sanjay’s diary is read for the first time, its contents are detailed in a flashback; when it’s read again by another character, the same events zip by as if in fast-forward mode, as if this character is getting a crash course in the truth – feel the need to include not only scenes of severely sadistic violence, but also a cringe-inducing moment wherein the villain shoots a bystander dead, and afterwards, strips her, exclaiming that she won’t feel the shame anymore?
For all the novelty in Ghajini, the part that works best is the most old-fashioned – the romance between Sanjay and Kalpana (the very pretty Asin, who grates a bit initially, but settles down quickly to become the film’s most memorable character). Harris Jayaraj’s foot-tapping numbers (Oru maalai ilaveyil neram is a beauty) could have been shot better, but they do add that extra zing to these portions that are funny, charming, and thoroughly entertaining.
More than in anything he’s done so far, Suriya shows he can do relaxed romantic comedy as well as it can be done. But the poor man is unfortunately stuck in an action movie, and he’s obviously bulked up for it, so he also has to – unbelievably for his character, that of Chairman of a company – pulverise twenty goons single-handedly. And that’s when you see that the problems in Ghajini aren’t as much due to the writing or the directing as with the perception (and the presentation) of the hero – sorry, Hero – in Tamil cinema. Whatever the story, whatever the role, he – sorry, He – has to be not just a man, but a Superman.
It wasn’t always this way. Long before Memento, there was a Tamil movie that featured an (anti)hero who was not quite there mentally, and whose tragic, violent story was teasingly pieced together through the course of the film. That, of course, was Sigappu Rojakkal, and there’s a scene here that looks like a direct homage – when a character enters the hero’s room and finds scribblings all over the walls that alert her to who he really is. For its time, Sigappu Rojakkal was a slick, successful thriller, and it didn’t have a pumped-up steroid boy at its centre. It just had a scrawny Kamalahasan in bell bottoms.
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