Review: Chennai 600028

Posted on May 31, 2007


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A street-cricket saga from a bunch of no-names comes out of nowhere and knocks your socks off.

MAY 31, 2007 – WE’VE SEEN films that caution us to stay away from liquor, we’ve seen films that indicate the badness inherent in a villain by zooming in on the bottle of VAT 69 by his side, and we’ve seen films where a few local guys celebrate by congregating rowdily at the booze shop by the street corner – but have you ever seen a film that touches upon the empathetic aspects of alcohol consumption? I’ve just seen one, and it’s the terrific Chennai 600028. There’s this song Vaazhkaya yosingada – the one in which the choreographer’s instructions surely went (a) act as if you are scratching away a bad case of the itches on your torso, (b) now, raise your hands above your head and make batwings – where a hurt-in-love youth is drinking and moaning (in verse, of course) about the faithlessness of women, and at one point, he turns his half-full glass upside down, as if even that cannot fix him up again, when one his friends nearby holds out his glass and rescues the drink. (You can almost hear the latter think: Machaan, girls will come and girls will go, but why waste perfectly good whiskey?) It’s one of the most sacred of coming-of-age rituals, drinking with your closest friends – which is why you really feel for a character when he is shown drinking all alone – and Chennai 600028 captures it beautifully, never more so when one of these boys returns home in the morning after a night out drinking, and his worried elder brother hauls him up: “Enna thanni adichaalum night veettukku vandhu seru.â€? If that isn’t empathy, I don’t know what is. Going by the envious sighs of the younger siblings in the audience, if someone ever decides to remake Sivaji Ganesan’s Annan Oru Kovil, here’s a candidate for the protagonist.

With the awesome load of positive reviews for this street-cricket saga, I stepped into the movie hall expecting a goofy lark – something that would make for an amiable two-plus hours (it doesn’t really pay to expect much more in Tamil cinema these days) – but first-time director Venkat Prabhu made me imagine a batsman making his ODI debut, swinging wildly at the opening delivery and scoring, if not a six, a goodish four. Nothing – and believe me, nothing – will prepare you for the sheer genius of the closing sequence, which, perhaps not coincidentally, harks back to a bet match for… booze money. (There – alcohol again! Can there be any doubt, now, that the cast and the crew went bar-hopping – or, at least, TASMAC kadai-hopping – to celebrate the film’s success?) Chennai 600028 is about the rivalry between the Sharks, the cricket team of the titular pin code (R.A. Puram, for you non-Chennai-ites), and the Royapuram Rockers – and what makes it so winning is that this is all there is to it. The cricket here isn’t the vehicle for a metaphor, as in Lagaan or in Iqbal. This isn’t about overcoming the British or overcoming a disability – this is just a small story about small people and their small triumphs.

And when I say “small people,â€? I refer merely to their not being larger than life in any sense. One of them works as a waiter in a coffee shop, another is a mechanic – they are just a bunch of regular guys, with a bunch of regular names like Karthik and Arvind and Cheenu and Pazhani and Raghu and Ezhumalai (or “7 Malai,â€? as his cricket vest puts it). And they are brought to beautiful life by a cast whose chief asset is its anonymity. No single performance stands out – if we remember Shiva, Nitin Satya, Jai and Premgi “yenna kodumai saar idhuâ€? Amaran, it’s because they have the bigger roles, not because they are necessarily better than the others – and yet, all the performances seem just right. There is no suspension of disbelief required, because these actors are these people. (They are so… natural that when the elder brother I talked about earlier – the one with all that empathy – makes a few standard-issue villain noises, we immediately dismiss it as “acting.â€?) These boys look like they’ve been chosen from a random sampling of students from Loyola College – no, make that Pachaiyappa’s College, for there’s a strident streak of anti-Peterism in them. (One of the few moments that rings false is when our heroes crash a high-society party.) Theirs are the dreams of Bharathiraja love scenes and Ilayaraja background scores and jasmine flowers in their beloved’s hair – which is why it’s horrible when the film cuts away to glossy song sequences with metrosexual stylings, which are as out-of-place in the milieu of this movie as Thanni thotti was in the context of Sindhu Bhairavi.

The only other sore points are the attempts to manufacture drama – as if seeing these boys trying to run with their hopes and their dreams weren’t dramatic enough. Chennai 600028 has been shot in colours that make it look like a Films Division documentary that’s being projected for the 501st time, and this newsreel quality enhances the day-in-the-life texture of the narrative. Even the cricketing stretches aren’t hyper-edited for impact – there’s a bit of split-screen gimmickry, otherwise the games just roll by in the unremarkable (yet strangely comforting) rhythms of a match taking place at the Corporation playground near your home. And with all the low-key unfussiness of these goings-on, it’s jarring when you see the high-pitched nonsense involving local dadas and their stabbings (the long-ago motivations behind which you’ve almost forgotten by the time these events occur). Toss this accusation at the filmmakers and they’ll probably justify these scenes – and those song sequences – as commercial compromises, but even otherwise, this is a pretty commercial movie. (We are, after all, talking about something that has made an instant – and indelible – contribution to popular culture, in the form of the catchphrase “Saroja saamaan nikaalo!â€?) Still, these occurrences aren’t allowed to fester, and there’s lots more to focus on – like the brilliantly funny dialogue. (An English-illiterate remarks, upon hearing the name of the R.A. Puram team: “Sharks… shoe podarathukku munnadi poduvangale, adhuvaa?â€? And you haven’t lived till you’ve heard the cricket commentary. Sample bit of deadpan genius: “Avar pandhai pidikkavillai. Pandhu dhaan avarai pidithathu.â€?) In any case, the real drama is in the stuff that’s tucked away in the sidelines, as when a stranger walks into the playground, casually picks up a bat and calls out to a kid: “Ey thambi, konjam bowling podu.â€? This wonderfully offhand bit acquires a special poignancy when we recall all those conspiracy theories regarding national representation of players from our state – because it says that as long as there’s street cricket, everyone can play.

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil