Between Reviews: Love, Factually

Posted on March 6, 2010


Picture courtesy:

Picture courtesy:


Gautham Vasudev Menon’s very real, very true-to-life, very messy romance is yet another effort, this year, that pushes the envelope far beyond the realms of “safe” commercial cinema.

MAR 7, 2010 – WHAT A YEAR THIS IS TURNING OUT to be for Tamil cinema! Forget good films or perfect films or successful films or films that will be claimed as classics by aliens roaming the planet after humankind has become extinct – I’m simply referring to the unfettered ambition that has been leaping off our screens ever since the new decade dawned. Recent releases like Goa and Thamizh Padam and Porkalam have, in their own distinct ways, helped demolish the long-nurtured myth that the Tamil audience is toweringly traditional – with hair well-oiled and plaited and beribboned and festooned with fragrant garlands of jasmine – and that spoofs and same-sex couples are never going to be tolerated. Industry wisdom was that you could veer into the offbeat, but only if the milieu was rural – and so for a while, the only truly interesting stories revolved around sickle-wielding small-town heroes. But even if it’s too soon to single out a viable movement of any serious value, it appears, now, that edgy urban narratives aren‘t without their assortment of admirers.

The real signs of hope, however, are that even the major movies – the ones from big-gun directors and funded with multiples of crores – are rebelling against the must-have model, which posits that you must have comedy tracks and you must have item songs and you must have scenes of melodramatic sentiment that will appease the unsophisticated viewer. Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan and Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya are essentially 16-odd reels of a raised middle finger directed at those who swear by safety, and the (relative) success of these films might make the commercial waters a little safer for future directors, who can now dream of plunging into the untried and untested without fearing the fast-approaching fins of box-office sharks. It is the tendency of filmmakers, after establishing themselves, to keep churning out formulaic movies that will perpetuate their commercial credibility – but both Selvaraghavan and Menon have opted to leap off craggy cliffs without chutes, making the films they want to make as opposed to the films that they think we want to watch. That’s a real reason for exhilaration.

My experience with Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (VTV) was similar to my experience of Aayirathil Oruvan – around interval point, I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching. I knew it was something drastically different and I knew that I should withhold judgment until the end, but I couldn’t help picking away at the scabrous annoyances. I was a mess of mind-games. The conceptualisation of Jessie, for example, is simply fantastic, but should the character have been played by someone with more presence (someone like Samantha, say, who, in her handful of scenes, shows more heft than Trisha who’s there from start to stop)? Or is the wishy-washiness of Trisha as an actress the perfect fit for the wishy-washiness of Jessie, and would a better actress have overthought her portrayal and not just lived it out? Karthik (nicely played by Silambarasan), is a fascinating character too, but did we really need the actor expressing his infatuation (with Jessie) every couple of seconds in such overtly gestural fashion, like a mime trying to convince us he’s in love? And did this love have to be – early Mani Ratnam-style – yet another instance of infatuation at first sight (rather, at first long-distance sideward glance)?

It’s wonderful that the young hero’s sidekick-equivalent isn’t a backpack-slinging college kid but a man of a certain age and with a certain amount of life experience (Ganesh is perfect in this low-key role), but considering that he fills in as confidante plus father-figure plus professional guide and guardian angel, shouldn’t he have played a bigger part in the proceedings? Couldn’t the unsympathetic father and the unnecessary mother have been axed in favour of more scenes with this unusual masculine presence in Karthik’s life? And couldn’t the mandatory heroics of one man boxing his way out of an opposition of many have been avoided as well? And couldn’t the songs (from one of AR Rahman’s stronger soundtracks in Tamil) have been shot and staged better, eschewing mere one-two-three-four choreography with backup dancers for a sense of the mood of the moment, a feat achieved only during the unfurling of Mannippaaya? Why does this director, who has the enviable track record of hit soundtrack after hit soundtrack, shortchange his music so? Even if the intent during these numbers was to mirror the larger-than-life filmmaking mind of the protagonist, are pretty panoramic pictures the only way out?

But as with Aayirathil Oruvan, all this hand-wringing evaporated into the ether by the time the film ended, and even some of the early choices, in retrospect, came to make sense. The frills of the first half – the extraneous characters, the perky song breaks, the attempts to embrace a larger sense of the community around Karthik and Jessie, even the faint feints at melodrama – fall away, and we get to see something very rare in Tamil cinema: the treatment of love as the most complicated of emotions, which reduces its two participants to behaviours beyond the realm of reason or logic. It’s not that we haven’t seen melancholy-tinged love stories earlier, but in melodramas like Idhayam, there was a solid crux, a tangible obstacle (like the hero’s extreme diffidence) to be overcome. But VTV deals with the sort of hurdle that’s there and yet not there. Menon succeeds brilliantly in putting across a most maddening woman in Jessie, who wants to be with Karthik and yet doesn’t want him enough to risk shaking up the foundations of her life. The hero is essentially a withered-up autumn leaf blown this way and that in the gale force of her indecision.

The problem isn’t particularly that she’s older than Karthik, or that she’s Christian to his Hindu, or that her stentorian father will not approve of this match, or that, as a card-carrying citizen of Venus, she herself is unsure, at some levels, about this mad Martian who woos her incessantly – Jessie’s mind is like an exam sheet with these multiple-choice options, and her problem is all of the above. On a logical level, her decisions – depicted, in a masterstroke, in sms-es that flash by almost as instantly as her quicksilver mood changes – make no sense, because we’re used to seeing films where if the hero likes the heroine and if this like is reciprocated, all they have to do is surmount external hurdles like parental opposition. But what does a man do if the obstacle is internal, inchoate, indistinct? Menon does something extraordinarily brave in playing out the iterative indecisions of his heroine’s mind, which loop unto themselves infinitely, the frustrating way real life often is when not chopped up into easily digestible narrative chapters in an easily absorbable big-screen story.

Messy Jessie is clearly the standout character in VTV – the latest in a long line of fascinating females (Jyotika in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and Kaakha Kaakha, Divya Spandana in Vaaranam Aayiram) from this director – but Karthik (who, mercifully, isn’t the high-minded romantic sop we’re usually saddled with, but a raging creature of the loins too) isn’t without his intriguing quirks. In a beautifully observed scene where they settle down to watch a movie, she turns to talk to him about their situation and sees his eyes transfixed on the screen. She’s seen a bare handful of movies in her entire life, while to him, movies are his life – and she actually asks if he’d rather have this conversation after the movie. His profession is such an integral aspect of his person, it’s inevitable that the film ends with a film-within-a-film, his own. As the love story deepens – or more precisely, as it stays resolutely on the surface in ever-widening ripples, thanks to Jessie’s inability to dive into commitment – Silambarasan’s performance begins to take hold almost without your noticing it, and by the time he breaks down while seated on a park bench, your eyes are awash in unshed tears that recall any number of times you’ve been in love, out of love, in between love. Losing a woman, sometimes, is the first step towards becoming a man – VTV understands this, how a personal setback can make one a better professional.

Young-male romantic angst, especially of underachieving and over-besotted engineers, is something Menon understands very well – Suriya’s breakdown scene in the telephone booth in Vaaranam Aayiram took a similar sledgehammer swing to the heart. (And speaking of the latter, where its star turned stalker and went all the way to America in search of love, Menon gamely makes fun of this aspect, as also his tendency to write English lines for his characters.) Then again, the romantic track in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu wasn’t about young love at all, detailing as it did a weather-beaten exchange of hearts between exhausted souls. Menon started with a romantic story, Minnale, which didn’t work for me at all – perhaps because it was a first feature, he courted cliché with a vengeance, and there was nothing in it but the music. But in the films since, he’s evolved into one of our finest chroniclers of love. The question, though, is why VTV is being perceived as a feel-good romance. It’s something far braver, far tougher – it’s a romance that plays out not with teddy bears and valentines but on shards of broken glass. It’s feel-good only in the sense that it makes you feel good about the future of Tamil cinema.

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