The hero’s massy image battles the director’s classy aspirations in a part-drama, part-thriller with two well crafted halves that just don’t snap together.
FEB 21, 2007 – FROM THE VERY FIRST SCENE OF GAUTHAM’S NEW MOVIE, based on Derailed, you get the feeling that something’s different — and yet the same. The setting is Hyderabad, and yet the specific location — an anonymous road — looks like anywhere out of Chennai. There’s Sarath Kumar running towards his little boy and sticking a syringe full of something into the child’s arm — not at all what you’d expect an action hero, a mass action hero to do — and yet what he says next is the very stuff of an action hero, a mass action hero: “Vaa, ammaava koottittu varalaam.”? He just has a backpack with him, and yet the way he slings it across his shoulder, it may well be an aruvaa, and he may well be the rustic do-gooder setting out for vengeance against the evil pannaiyaar holding his wife hostage. This entire opening stretch of Pachaikili Muthucharam tells you everything you need to know about the film — its clothes may be different, and yet, at heart, it’s a good, old, masala movie. And how much you enjoy watching films about a hero — as opposed to those about an everyman, which is what Sarath Kumar is apparently playing here — will probably dictate how much you enjoy this movie.
For me, this proved to be a problem. After years of watching Tamil cinema, I guess most of us have gotten used to a mental gearshift the minute we step into the theatre. If it’s something from, say, Kamal Hassan or Mani Ratnam, we frontload our brains with expectations and prepare ourselves to engage with the unexpected. When it’s something starring Vijay, we put our fingers in our mouths and start whistling, or even if we don’t, we settle for entertainment at a very basic level, and if we get those five nice songs and four nice fights, we return home happy. But Gautham appears to want us to do both — he wants us to think, and he wants us to whistle. He gives us a touchingly-realised, middle-aged romance between a married, middle-class man and a married, middle-class woman who get to know each other while travelling to work on local trains, and yet he wants us to buy this man beating up hoodlums after being knifed through his palm. In an ideal world, we’d reason it out. We’d say, “Look, this is Tamil cinema we’re talking about. This is Sarath Kumar we’re talking about. He’s this big mass hero and he has an image, so the heroism bit is inevitable. So why don’t we just look at the glass as half-full instead of half-empty! Why don’t we come away happy that he’s at least tried to do this role, and not whine that he eventually gets back to being the very kind of hero he was trying not to be earlier on!”?
But unfortunately, films don’t work that way. There’s the blood and sweat of hundreds of people who’ve worked for days, months, maybe even years on these things, and yet all that matters in the three hours we see the result is: Did it work for me? That’s what we care about — our ultimate gratification. And that’s why I came away disappointed with Pachaikili Muthucharam, for the fact that it’s probably going to work for the masses is irrelevant to me. No, let me rephrase that, because this sounds as if I’ve never enjoyed massy movies. What bothered me about Pachaikili Muthucharam is that it wants to take class to the masses, in the sense that it wants to tell a story that the average Sarath Kumar fan wouldn’t have bothered to see if it hadn’t starred his favourite hero, but it also wants to hold on to the section of the audience that would have seen this story, Sarath Kumar or otherwise. And so it pitches itself squarely between both camps, trying to please both and inevitably ending up pleasing neither — just as it pitches itself squarely between relationship drama and white-knuckle thriller, trying to be both and ending up satisfactorily being neither.
In a way, I guess Pachaikili Muthucharam could be seen as the kind of film that we’d have gotten if Mahanadhi had been built around a star instead of an actor, for the what-happens graph of the leading man is quite similar. Both stories are about an average Joe (or Jayaraman) whose life is toyed with by conmen, and the key aspect is how these very ordinary men go from having their strings pulled to being the ones who pull the strings. And for a while, this is what makes Pachaikili Muthucharam so interesting. Venkatesh (Sarath Kumar) is a medical sales rep who parks his bike at the Tambaram station and then takes the train to work. He’s known his wife (Kalyani, played by Andrea Jeremiah) for 17 years — though they married late — and he’s still crazy about her, a fact that’s reflected in a bit of lyric in Harris Jayaraj’s lovely Un sirippinil… (“Mudhal naal paartha vanappu, thuli kurayavum illai unakku.”?) But as with all marriages, theirs too stops centering on them and starts centering on their child, especially when the latter gets diagnosed with diabetes. Wife is no longer responsive to Husband’s late-night overtures, and so when the beautiful Geetha (Jyotika) walks into the train compartment that Venkatesh is in one day, he can’t help staring at her. Ah, mid-life crisis. In Tamil cinema. Whatever next?
It’s interesting, this bit of casting, because you’d think demure Jyotika would be the one playing the wife, while Andrea (as yet an unproven commodity in films, and also one with the “western”? baggage, thanks to her real-life roots in theatre and music) would be the one tempting Sarath Kumar into straying. And this keeps you guessing, even if this casting-against-type eventually ends up more convincing on paper than on screen. (Jyotika goes over the top and Andrea goes under the radar; I wished for a little less from the former, a little more from the latter.) As Geetha and Venkatesh graduate from quick tiffin at Geetha’s Café to a relaxed dinner at Chinatown to getting themselves a room in a sleazy motel-equivalent on East Coast Road, you think… Surely they’re not going to, you know, do it? I mean, what would happen to Jyotika’s image if they did it? And what about Sarath Kumar’s image? Is thaali-sentiment obsessed Tamil cinema ready for an adult, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna-style exploration of infidelity? And what follows is even more disturbing — with hints of rape, loss of self-esteem, blackmail, and to top it all, Sarath Kumar takes several leaves out of the Kamal Hassan Book of Masochism and gets beaten black and blue. But in Mahanadhi, Kamal didn’t get to flex his muscles and demolish twenty bad guys all at once, while Sarath Kumar, here, does exactly that in the climax, which is a ludicrous end to the way his story began.
Gautham continues in Pachaikili Muthucharam what he began with Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, which is to craft one half of the movie that he wants to make and compromise on the other half of the movie that he feels we want to see. But at least Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu was an all-out cop thriller, so the over-the-top villains, for instance, didn’t get in the way all that much. Well, okay, they did, but there was at least an authoritative Kamal Hassan performance you could keep looking at instead. All I can say about Sarath Kumar here is that he tries — but he’s hampered by the very unconvincing part, which can’t decide how much of his star-baggage to use and how much to lose. (The actor who walks away with the film is Milind Soman, who shows up as a bad guy and snarls very convincingly.) The climactic one-against-all, for instance, is very well choreographed, and I would have actually enjoyed it in a routine masala movie, but after all those tentative nudges indicating that we’d have a finish more psychological than physical, this ending is awfully disappointing. Then again, maybe it’s not all that surprising. Because when Sarath Kumar strays, he gets pummeled by the bad guys, and when he returns to his wife, he gets the strength to pummel them back. After years of watching Tamil cinema, don’t we know that there’s nothing stronger than the thaali-sentiment?
Copyright “©2007 The New Sunday Express