A good masala movie needs a touch of the mythic, and Naan Rajavaga Pogiren has this at least in theory. (And as we slowly realise, it also carries a clever pun in its title.) Jeeva (Nakul), a questionably bewigged youngster who’s grown up amidst the apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh, comes to know that there’s someone who looks exactly like him, someone named Raja, in faraway Chennai. He’s possessed by the notion of this lookalike – and we find ourselves in the kind of story where there are no random coincidences, where everything is being orchestrated by the baton-wielding big guy up in the sky. It’s no coincidence, either, that the director, Prithvi Rajkumar, dedicates the film to Raj Kapoor and Sridhar. He knows his commercial cinema – and not just in the sense of quoting from the past, like the wink at the lesbian undertones in the lyrics of Senthamizh thenmozhiyaal. He knows that this kind of cinema is about making the ludicrous look not possible but plausible. His instincts are sound.
There’s nothing new in Naan Rajavaga Pogiren, but it’s worked out diligently and with respect for the audience. Rajkumar doesn’t hurl crap at us and say, “Look, it’s a masala movie. You shouldn’t think about any of this.” He’s clearly put thought into his plot, his characters. When the hero’s friend, a derivative of the “good Muslim” archetype from an older era of cinema, stumbles into a situation fraught with danger, he first escorts his pregnant wife to the nearest auto-rickshaw, and only then, after ensuring her safety, does he rush to the scene. From Jeeva’s narcolepsy to the heroine’s (Valli, nicely played by Chandni) unfamiliarity with Western clothing, everything is explained, and when Reema (Avani Modi), Raja’s best friend, is spurned in love, she accepts her lot with a healthy shrug. This is a film that respects its women, to the extent that its engine is revved up by Valli’s speculative thesis at a law college. When was the last time you saw a heroine who did more than just cling to the hero’s arm?
It’s a pity, then, that despite all this effort, the film doesn’t fully deliver on its promise. A lot of the narrative unfolds through dialogue, and these exposition-heavy stretches – lecturing to us, at times, about plastics, AIDS, genetically modified crops, even the recent trend of re-releasing old films – put a brake on the momentum. As do the songs, one of which is an item number that shamelessly mimics the choreography of Chikni chameli, with Zarine Khan producing in her gelatinous midriff the ripple effect so beloved to Tamil audiences. And Rajkumar doesn’t punch up his material as he should. Jeeva’s decision to go in search of Raja should have carried a whiff of inevitability – it is destiny, after all. We feel that the director was in a hurry to rush through this material in two-and-a-half hours – there’s no other explanation, in a film otherwise so well-thought-out, for a contrivance as ugly as the sudden appearance of the hero’s father in an action sequence.
But while judging any film, you open up an Excel spreadsheet in your mind and lay out the pluses and the minuses, and I found Naan Rajavaga Pogiren doing more things right than wrong. I enjoyed the Enga Veettu Pillai red herring, and perhaps only regular Tamil-film watchers will appreciate the way cops are integrated into the fight scenes here, or how the villain really seems to know how to kickbox (Raja is a kickboxer as well, and Nakul uses his litheness to good effect), or even how the heroine appears familiar with the language. A long time ago, I used to evaluate leading ladies on their ability to plough through comedy and intense drama, combining timing and emotion and rhetoric, but these days I’m happy if they simply manage to move their mouths in accordance with the lines being spoken by the dubbing artists. After all, we live in an age of Tamil cinema where “Tamil” has little to do with the cinema.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.