Bullet-point Report: Payanam / Nadunisi Naaigal

Posted on February 19, 2011


  • On the surface, Payanam is chalk to Nadunisi Naaigal’s cheese, but they’re both refreshingly unformulaic films, they’re both unburdened by music-video interludes, they both dispense with romantic tracks, and they both tip a hat to Mani Ratnam. (If Payanam invokes the pan-Indian success of Roja, Nadunisi Naaigal recreates a scene with this dialogue: “Yengirundhu vandhadhu indha kai neetra pazhakkam?” The latter film, of course, does not need to be named, and if you think it does, I’m banishing you to a classroom where you will pick up a piece of chalk and write on the blackboard, one hundred times, “I will try to keep up with landmark Tamil films.” No, seriously.)
  • Radhamohan is still a better writer than director. There’s no finesse to his filmmaking, no effort to go beyond what’s on page, and he doesn’t think film — but this is easily his best effort. Coming out of the sentimental-cinema mould may have been the best thing that happened to him. (The weakest portions here are the ones where a baby-faced terrorist softens in the angelic presence of a little Muslim girl. Awww, but no thanks!)
  • Oddly enough, the trailer for Dum Maaro Dum appeared before Nadunisi Naaigal, and it was stunning. The hepped-up reworking of the opening bars of the older song (the sonic equivalent of subliminal visuals), the sun-ripened images, the shock cut to the girl in the bikini, the use of a ring of smoke to spell the title — forget our directors, forget our actors, just who are these unsung heroes who put together such stunning promos? Are they ad guys? I wonder if they’ll take to making films, like how David Fincher did. I don’t know how strong they’ll be in terms of narrative, but their visual grammar is stunning. At least they’re directors, in the sense that they think film.
  • You could call Payanam a cross between a disaster movie (say, Airport) and a Mouli stage play. There’s such an air of bonhomous familiarity to those who grew up in the seventies and the eighties, reading Vikatan jokes about actresses named “Kalasri.” Yes, that’s a name brought up here, and in case you don’t already know, in jokes about actresses, the name of the actress is always capped off with “sri.”
  • The film is brisk and never boring. But its biggest achievement may be in proving that it is possible to sneak various genres past the barbed-wire boundaries of Tamil cinema (okay, the hijack thriller is not exactly a genre, I know), and yet hew to the must-haves of Tamil cinema (namely sentiment, comedy, heroism). So if filmmakers continue to blame audiences for wanting the same thing, we now know where that finger really needs to be pointed.
  • In a moderately effective moment of schmaltz, a priest reads out from the Bible and everyone listens to his Tamil translation of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” But why are all the names of characters and places, along with the dates and times, in English? It’s interesting that the non-Tamil dialogues are rendered with Tamil subtitles, but the captions remain alien to those who cannot read English. Or is the implication that there are no such people anymore?
  • Radhamohan should consider making a full-fledged spoof on Tamil cinema next. There are some crackling one-liners that might have crackled even more had Tamizh Padam not stolen that thunder. (And let’s brush aside, for the moment, the not-insignificant fact that these ceaseless one-liners diffuse the tension that there are people, here, who could be killed. Baby steps. Baby steps.)
  • Shouldn’t the same baby-steps logic be applicable to Nadunisi Naaigal too? Why, then, is it so much more difficult to overlook the problems with this film, which, if nothing else, offers the welcome sight of a big-name director shepherding a no-name cast in the service of utterly unpleasant material?
  • Perhaps it’s because, after Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and now Nadunisi Naaigal, I’m not a fan of Gautham Vasudev Menon’s depiction of psychopaths. That whole OTT, look-ma-I’m-acting spectacle, replete with very odd pauses and inflections in the line readings – that just yanks me out of the story being told.
  • It’s all for the better, then, that the actors are mostly unfamiliar faces, who come to us with little baggage. You don’t want a big star confessing to licking feet or peeking through bathroom windows – or do you?
  • Speaking of baggage, I’m taken back to the scene from Dil Chahta Hai where Akshay Khanna first runs into Dimple Kapadia. He’s passing by her house, and she’s stranded outside with her luggage, helpless. He offers to help, she refuses, she tries to lift a suitcase, the handle breaks, he offers again, and she accepts. Now, did Farhan Akhtar just intend this scene as it plays on the surface – as in, this guy meets this woman under interesting circumstances? Or is there another layer – as in, this guy meets this woman under interesting circumstances, and she… comes with baggage?
  • Anyway, back to this film, after that Brief Rambling (hey, what do you know, another BR™!), the best scene is the one with the first sexual act. After the discussions that unspooled here, I dare not label this rape or otherwise, but by focusing on just her face, a multitude of emotions is allowed to spill forth. She may not have looked at him that way ever, but did a warm body on a lonely night alleviate her other misgivings? Of such fascinating complexities are human beings made.
  • At a theoretical level, there are interesting subversions in the telling of this story. Instead of a gradual revelation of the miscreant’s motives, for instance, we are dealt the dope right away. The why comes first, then the what, and it’s usually the other way round.
  • And yet, the structure – part cat-and-mouse chase, part interior monologue – doesn’t hold up well enough to offer an immersive experience. We are always on the outside looking in.
  • And it also becomes fairly predictable after a point. Even I — notorious in my circles for never being able to second-guess anything before it’s actually shown on screen with a big, fat ta-dah — was able to deduce the truth about the burn victim in the Jedi-council robes. (I’d name a film I thought about here, but that might count as a spoiler, and as you all know, I’m such a non-spoilery writer.)
  • That entire Eyes Wide Shut-in-Bombay segment was bizarre (as it was probably meant to be), but I was intrigued by the fact that, for a while thereon, there were curtains everywhere – spangly curtains, bead curtains, plastic curtains in the ICU, the gauzy sheets on the four-poster bed…
  • An eight-year-old stands outside a gate. The camera pulls back from him, above the gate and to this side. The gate opens and a 13-year-old enters. Simple. Nice.
  • An obsessed man has the object of his obsession in front of him — cowering, available — and he wants to strip down to his trunks and dive into the pool? Uh, excuse me?
  • Despite having to face, on the big screen, the sight of Vadivukkarasi in a yellow miniskirt, Sigappu Rojakkal mined this material with a lot more skill. It had two exquisite Raja numbers to boot. (Yes, there’s a woman here named Sharada as well.)

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan, The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.