Just how differently can you stage the gratingly familiar scenario of a boy looking at a girl, being stricken by a thunderbolt, and then clambering past the ramparts of her initially resistant heart? Here’s what Aishwarya R Dhanush does in her oddly titled first feature, 3. Ram, sitting astride his bike in the pouring rain, sees Janani crouched beside her bicycle, struggling with the chain that’s broken loose. He dismounts and extends a chivalrous hand. She’s grateful. But when he asks her which school she goes to (they’re both teenagers), she walks away. He finds out and begins to follow her, even to the tuition class she attends. He looks at her. She looks away. Then one day, she looks back at him. Could this, finally, be love? It isn’t, unfortunately. She walks up to him on the street, interrupting his ritual of following her home, and requests him to stop. He does. He’s not there in class the next day. He doesn’t follow her home either. The day after, too, he’s not in class, at least not where he usually sits – but he’s in a row behind. She sees him. She smiles. His presence did nothing for her, but his absence has made her feel something. Falling in love, sometimes, is that simple.
This kind of sensitivity is typically the terrain of the female writer, the female filmmaker. It’s not that men cannot be sensitive, but at least in Tamil cinema, most of whose directors are male, we’ve grown accustomed to an overwhelming answer to the question: “Why did he fall in love with her?” And we’ve grown equally accustomed to the exaggerated answer, that it was this “cute” trait or that one, something that leapt out and smacked him on the nose and declared itself the reason for his initial attraction, the electric spark that surged into a thunderbolt. And here’s Aishwarya R Dhanush telling us that, sometimes, there’s no major reason – maybe just a minor one, like the fact that he’s a boy and she’s a girl and they happen to be of a similar age and in similar surroundings. Aishwarya tends to lay on “poetic touches” with a trowel (and her segues from the past to the present are especially ungainly, a little too symmetric, as if closing off a loop with a shoe lace), but she succeeds in planting before our eyes a young couple completely convincing in love.
Dhanush plays Ram as a standard-issue Selvaraghavan protagonist, the kind of dark-skinned boy who falls for the fair girl and becomes stalkerishly obsessed with her – but the smallish twist here is that he comes from a well-off family, and Janani (Shruti Haasan) belongs to a lower-middle-class household. (Though you wouldn’t know it from her unexpectedly extravagant wardrobe.) This role reversal creates a bit of conflict when Ram is revealed to be English-challenged, even though his father (Prabhu, who’s twice Dhanush’s size and makes a very funny joke about it) speaks the language very well. There’s a passing mention that Ram’s coarsening is the result of his hanging out with poorer kids at the playground, but I suspect it has more to do with keeping the actor’s fan base happy (besides, of course, that Selvaraghavan influence). There’s an interesting thought-experiment to be conducted in a parallel-dimension movie where Dhanush speaks perfect English and Shruti speaks like him. Why should boys have all the fun? Isn’t it time girls, too, began to spout the slang of the street (and no, not only while playing prostitutes)?
Anyway, she gives him her number. Her father sees him following her and slaps him, and her eyes fill with tears. Then, in the necessary Ilayaraja-homage stretch, as Naan thedum sevvandhi poovidhu leaps out of a radio, he lands up outside her house and says he loves her. She says she loves him too, somewhat exasperatedly, but later she asks him for a ride on his bike, but only so far as the end of the street – it wouldn’t do for others to see them together. Their feelings intensify over chaste kisses and telephone calls and a brief separation, and she begins to lie to her parents. These passages in love only sound like events, like huge happenings, but Aishwarya stages them so uneventfully, with such tossed-off grace, that we seem to be watching snapshots from a fading memory album (which, in a way, is what the film turns out to be). The falling-in-love portion (along with a bit of the being-in-love portion) of 3 has to count as a reasonably remarkable achievement. We know things cannot stay happy forever, in this amber-encased idyll, and we wait, with a certain amount of dread, to see when (and how) things will go wrong.
Soon enough, our fears come true – in more ways than one. Things begin to go wrong, after the school-going segment, not just for the couple but for the film itself (this is as good a point as any to insert a spoiler alert), which morphs into a very different kind of movie, as if mirroring Ram’s descent into a very different kind of personality. And this is frustrating – in more ways than one. Dhanush’s character begins to remind us of the one he just played in Mayakkam Enna. But more importantly, we find ourselves trapped in a movie where our reactions, increasingly, are telegraphed by the opening words of its most famous song. The deaf sister speaks. There’s a marriage in a nightclub. There’s a dead dog. There’s a forehead-streak of ash to signify widowhood in a modern young woman who doesn’t mind getting married in a nightclub. There’s a superhero-like fight in a car park. There are long-held and terribly indulgent shots of the lead actors succumbing to bursts of feeling (and Shruti Haasan simply doesn’t have the skills, yet, to carry off emotionally draining close-ups). And there are holographic demons. Or something.
Aishwarya does hint at this spooky development in a couple of early scenes, where Janani appears to be dreaming and hallucinating, to the accompaniment of neon-light effects and blood-curdling soundtrack noise. And if we were to be charitable to a first-time filmmaker, we might remember other films that shaped themselves according to the contours of their central conceits. David Fincher’s Zodiac, after a while, began to devote itself to depictions of nothingness in order to reflect an investigation that had begun to yield nothing, and over here, Karu Pazhaniappan’s Pirivom Sandhippom lost its sparkle and crawled down to the point of catatonia in order to help us experience the ennui of its near-catatonic heroine. It’s a terrific idea, in theory, to make a bipolar film – “poles apart,” as the suspiciously young doctor says, in its first and second halves – in order to focus on a protagonist who is diagnosed as bipolar. Perhaps on paper it isn’t preposterous that the story careens wildly between the (relatively) naturalistic and the screamingly cinematic. But it’s very difficult to digest this transition on screen. The director, so much at home while detailing the precious inconsequentialities of romance, begins to founder while narrating an actual story, packed with dramatic consequence.
What we remember, then, are the occasional flourishes, which promised so much more. The affectionate scenes between Dhanush and Prabhu. The uninhibited way Janani refers to her father-in-law as Uncle (and not as appa or mama, which is why that ash-streaked forehead is so uncharacteristic). The beautiful scene where Rohini, playing Janani’s mother, sees her daughter for the first time after marriage and seizes up with a welter of emotion. (Is it that the daughter got married without their blessing? That she destroyed their lives, their dreams, in order to live the life of her dreams? Is it that she is now ensconced in a lavish lifestyle so removed from the one she knew earlier? I wished the parents, and the wisecracking friend played by Sivakarthikeyan, had been given more to do, had been folded into the story more organically. We lose sight of them, and the film becomes airless, with its relentless focus on the boxed-in leads.) And let’s not forget the wonderfully unfussy scene where Janani attempts to have sex with a deranged Ram, while he cowers in fear. We’re used to these episodes in Bhagyaraj films, where the setup is milked for comic effects, but here it’s the utterly normal situation of a wife, fed up with a dry spell, wanting to be made love to. I couldn’t help wondering if a male director would have dreamed this up.
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