Between Reviews: Sophomore Blues

Posted on August 28, 2010



The second film’s the real test, it appears, and one filmmaker ends up with a disappointing star showcase while another, wisely, chooses to showcase himself.

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AUG 29, 2010 – WALKING INTO NAAN MAHAAN ALLA, I knew I couldn’t hope for anything as exhilarating as Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu. For one, the latter was a first film – one forged by years of pent-up creative fires. The second film is almost always a letdown, if only in comparison. But more importantly, this time around, Susindran, the director, has a star in Karthi – and star vehicles carry their own sets of rules and requirements. The question now becomes not if you can tell a good story, but whether you can hold on to your sensibilities while simultaneously acknowledging the must-haves of the star vehicle. The temptation to sell out is strong because the market, here, recognises only stars. Once you get hold of a star, financing becomes easy, distribution becomes easy, attracting other top talents becomes easy – so it’s entirely understandable why a young director, especially one who might have faced humongous hurdles while making his first film, would want to settle into the air-conditioned comfort of a star vehicle.

To Susindran’s credit, he does attempt to build a rickety bridge between creativity and commerce – at least for a while. He begins his story with his villains – druggies who kidnap and kill a girl – and he takes us right into the opening credits. Years of star-vehicle conditioning have taught us that the time may be right for the hero to be introduced with an evil-trouncing fight sequence, but the hero is revealed, instead, in the midst of innocuous New Year celebrations, in the midst of cheer – and that’s who Jeeva (Karthi) is, a youngster filled with inexhaustible reserves of cheerfulness. And then the heroine Priya (Kajal Agarwal) makes an entry, and there are long stretches of meet-cute banter. And we begin to wonder if Susindran is indeed going to make good on this beginning, by making a film with a big hero who’s not allowed to do the things a big hero usually does.

That doesn’t quite happen. The entire first half is a monumental exercise in hero-building, the cinematic equivalent of “Annan banian size 42,” that line from Aboorva Sagotharargal that a friend of Kamal Hassan’s used to extol the star. Jeeva, we learn, is so guileless that he plays with children every chance he gets. Jeeva is so honest that he tells Priya’s father that he intends to marry her, never mind that they are separated by the proverbial railway tracks. Jeeva is so charming that a goon hired by Priya’s father to make Jeeva stay away becomes a pal instead. Jeeva is so liked that on the first day of his new job, he’s inundated by calls from well-wishers, and even his parents can’t bring themselves to rebuke this wastrel son who constantly cadges them for cash. Jeeva is so kindhearted that when asked to collect owed-money from the impoverished, he buys biscuits for their children instead.

So, yes, Jeeva doesn’t do the nominal big-hero items, like fighting or belting out punch dialogues or falling in love in the Alps. But on the other hand, he’s still treated like a big hero. He’s not allowed to become a life-sized character, which is what this film needed. The older Naan Mahaan Alla, starring Rajinikanth, was first titled Naan Gandhi Alla (until a court order mandated the change), and that’s what this protagonist is about too – when attacked by villains, he cannot, will not, be a pacific Gandhi. In other words, the film is about a gentle giant’s transformation to a traditional big-hero, capable of fighting off four villains all at once – but that transformation is treated with very little conviction. Like a thousand other action movies, this one too devolves into a depiction of vigilante justice. We might have at least been given a grace note of the acknowledgement, on Jeeva’s face, of the animal he’s been reduced to – but that, alas, would make him a sissy in the Tamil cinema universe.

And as the Tamil cinema universe has little use for the heroine, Priya is almost entirely written out from the second half. This is how you can separate involved writing from the indifferent. In Sathya, too, the character played by Kamal Hassan – in a far-more believable transformation to avenging angel – takes leave of his girlfriend (Amala) before the end, before he sets out to annihilate his nemeses. And we get to see the part where he takes leave of her. She pleads with him. He has no answers if they’ll end up together. All he knows is that, at that point, he cannot think of her. He can only think about the task at hand. And, though left incomplete, there is a strange sense of completeness in this love track. Naan Mahaan Alla has no time for such niceties. Priya’s father instructs that Jeeva return in six months to ask for his daughter’s hand, but that thread remains flapping in the wind.

The real disappointment of the film, however, is how cinematic, how unreal, it is – a far cry from the naturalistic developments of Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu. The love story between Priya and Jeeva verges on the intolerable. It’s a good idea, in theory, to have long scenes of their burgeoning rapport, but the director pushes the “cuteness” factor so far that you begin to gag. He might take a lesson – or three – on how to stage buoyant love stories from his fellow second-time filmmaker, Pandiraj, who, after Pasanga, has brought out Vamsam. How refreshingly, how naturally, he tells his tale. Yes, there are “cinematic” touches like the cow – once the hero’s, now the heroine’s, and used as a go-between – that has been renamed from Azhagi Devi to Asin, but the pacing and the treatment removes all trace of artifice. Even the senior love track, between the hero’s parents, is handled beautifully.

At first, you roll your eyes that this is yet another installment of Cinemadurai – the seemingly endless series of rural stories where local colour and flavour are flaunted like proud badges of honour. (The inevitable Ilayaraja songs featured are Kuyile kavikkuyile and Manjakkulichu, though it’s Malare kurinji malare, the MS Viswanathan beauty from Dr. Siva, that finds a place of pride, for the heroine is named Malar.) And the premise, revolving around customs and traditions at a festival, is so convoluted that a cop spends a good five minutes, at the beginning, laying out the rules – as in Inception. (The simplified plot is this: Will the pacifist son manage to end a long-festering family feud and perpetuate his lineage? Hence that beginning with Gandhi’s eye-for-an-eye saying.) But Pandiraj is a master of the apparently aimless narrative, and he reels you in with his lazily meandering rhythms.

Vamsam isn’t as sparkling an achievement as Pasanga, but unlike Naan Mahaan Alla, it’s a strong second effort that’s a showcase for a director, not a star. The film is littered with small touches that gradually reveal facets of the characters – like the hero’s habit of washing his clothes with Pears soap so that he’ll smell nice to those walking alongside, or the heroine who deliberately hands visitors a years-old newspaper because it contains a picture of her as state topper. One of Pandiraj’s most intriguing traits is that he spends very little time establishing the heinousness of his villains – they’re bad, and that’s that. He’d rather devote himself to his wonderfully detailed humour – like the track about the cell phones (yes, reminiscent of Pasanga), or the scene where his Botany-educated hero and heroine refer to plants by their scientific names. They’d have called this film a slow-blooming Rosa Centifolia.

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