There are hyper-expressive actors who play to the gallery – so we can marvel at all that huffing and puffing, all that acting – and there are those who quietly vanish into the part, and then there’s Dhanush, who beautifully straddles the middle. In a wedding scene in Maryan (that’s the name of his character), he tries to catch the eye of Panimalar (Parvathi), whose advances he has constantly rebuffed. His approach here (perhaps consciously, perhaps by instinct) is that of a mime, filled with grimaces and hopeful glances – we’re left with little doubt about what he’s trying to do. (The man on the moon is left with little doubt about what he’s trying to do.) But elsewhere, when the director Bharatbala holds his face in tight close-ups, Dhanush relaxes – still, he syncs us without fuss to what he’s feeling. Rarely has an actor projected as much love as Dhanush does here over a telephone call – even if there had been no dialogue, even if we didn’t see Panimalar at the other end, we’d have no trouble making out what this call, this scene, this moment is all about.
The happiest surprise of Maryan is that its heroine is every bit as good, another exquisite subject for close-ups. (And there are many of them.) Just watch her when she learns from Maryan’s best buddy Sakkarai (Appukutty) that Maryan may be in love with her after all. Or when she finds out, through a phone call, that he’s been kidnapped by mercenaries in Sudan, where he’s on a two-year assignment. Or even in the seemingly unplayable scene where, after Maryan makes his escape there, she senses his impending freedom. This latter development is the stuff of melodramatic epics, and that’s what the director is after: a love story that transcends continents. Even when the villain, Theekkurisi (Vinayakan), shoves Panimalar into a room – she undergoes a shocking amount of brutality, even at the hands of Maryan – and attempts to rape her, she seems to be in a wild trance, thinking about her faraway lover, barely conscious of this proximal danger.
As he proved with his first feature, Hari Om, Bharatbala works very well in this intimate mode. There’s nothing new in this love story – she chases him; he resists; then his resolve crumbles – but Dhanush and Parvathi make us feel we’re eavesdropping on something special, where the most mundane of happenings (like playing footsie with mud-smeared legs) is imbued with a splash of the poetic. The problems with Maryan arise when this poetry is spilled on a larger canvas. As long as the film is confined to the coastal village that is Maryan’s hometown, it is on sure ground, and the director’s indulgences (a dreamy pace, for starters) serve the story well – but once the Roja-like narrative switch is turned on at interval point, these pluses turn into minuses. We need less poetry, more punch. And while the power of love is the narrative motor, there’s a sense of incompleteness when the other aspects of the plot aren’t developed as strongly. Sometimes, love is not all you need.
We need, for instance, memorable villains. Early on, Maryan says he finds himself at home in Sudan because “ellaarum nambala maadhiri manushanga dhaane,” and we need to feel his anguish when he realises how mistaken he was with this utopian assumption. But the Sudanese bad guys come off more like drugged-out schoolkids, alternating between campfire frat parties and psychotic episodes – and their leader is delineated solely by means of a skull he wears on a necklace. (They’re otherwise indistinguishable.) The film lays solid groundwork for their behavior – they’re upset that countries like India are taking all their oil, and they demand their share. But that sort of ideological abstraction is of little use in a film of this nature, where individual villainy needs to stand out so that we have the satisfaction of seeing the hero clamber out of captivity, to the stirring strains of AR Rahman’s Nenje ezhu.
And we need to feel the thrill of his escape. The central conceit of the film – and it’s a terrific one – is that Maryan is a hero when he’s by the sea, and there’s nothing heroic about him when he’s taken away to a place as far away as possible from the sea. The film’s first image is a salubrious one, sunlight rippling through blue waters, and Maryan’s “heroism” is established when he snares a monster fish that his father never could, and when he swims across from one boat to another, in the middle of the sea, just to get a box of matches for a smoke. He calls himself a Kadal rasa (and the song that follows is used most unfortunately), and when he’s dumped in a desert, he’s a shorn Samson (inasmuch as one can liken Dhanush to Samson). The second half of the film, which is about this son of the sea ending up a fish out of water, doesn’t register as strongly as the first, with its entrancing love story.
And like the villains, the characters around Maryan and Panimalar are given short shrift. Sakkarai is dispatched most unceremoniously, and the way Saamy (Maryan’s friend in Sudan, played by Jagan) is written out is worse. Even Theekkurisi vanishes abruptly. The sharpness in the writing that’s evident when Maryan walks into Panimalar’s house and claims her in front of a prospective groom is absent when he finds himself adrift in the desert. (Cue, more poetry: her tears fall on his parched lips.) But the slog through these stretches is made worthwhile when Maryan returns home, and we see how Parvathi responds to his presence, registering, first, his physicality, the fact that he’s really there, and then falling gently into his arms. It’s the quietest of reunions, and it reaffirms what we’ve almost forgotten in Tamil cinema, that love stories are a two-way street, and they need a strong actress as much as an actor. Where has she been hiding all this while?
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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