The two love stories this week are worlds apart – at least movie worlds apart. Sarkunam’s Naiyaandi slavishly follows the Kollywood formula, with thoroughly exaggerated characters whom we see only on screen – like the mother, at the beginning, who’s so desperate to marry off her older sons that she accosts unsuspecting “eligible” girls with a list of questions, including one about caste, and from there it’s just a small leap to the hero-introduction scene that has Chinna Vandu (Dhanush) vaulting across an open well. (Why? So that he wins the right to “correct” a girl that he and his idling friends have their eyes on. Mainly, though, I suppose it just sounded cool to have him do this.) The film is a vile mess. Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi’s Vanakkam Chennai, on the other hand, is a rom-com in the truest sense, the way rom-coms are made in Hollywood. (It’s the classic construct: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.) This film, too, is pure formula, but made with taste and understatement and a genuine understanding of how opposites attract. At least for a while, it’s a low-key bliss-out.
Watching these films together is to see all the ways a love story can be done wrong and right. In Naiyaandi, it’s the usual love at sight. The girl – Vanaroja (Nazriya Nazim) – is pretty. That’s it. An instant decision is made that she’s life-mate material. And so Chinna Vandu sets about stalking her. He guesses that girls like traditional-minded guys, and so he dresses up like a kaavadi-carrying devotee and lands up in front of her house. When that doesn’t work, he guesses that girls like funny guys, and so he dresses up like a circus clown and lands up in front of her house. Vanaroja’s thought processes are in the same vein. She reasons that if the number of electricity poles between now and the time the train stops at the station is in the single digits, then this will happen in her life. And if she manages to race to a tree before a firecracker explodes in the air, then that will happen. This proves contagious. Now Chinna Vandu begins to think that if he jumps from this tall tree to that one, then Vanaroja is really in love with him. If this had been the real world, both of them would have been committed, very quickly, to an institution where they could have scribbled love notes on the walls happily ever after.
Nobody wants to see, on screen, the mechanics of love as it unfolds in real life, but shouldn’t there be at least a semblance of how things really work? The situations in Naiyaandi are so contrived – the one about a missing ring has to be seen to be disbelieved – that you have to wonder if our filmmakers cannot be bothered to think up plausible falling-in-love scenarios anymore. The story has something to do with Vanaroja fleeing a villain who’s after her and taking refuge in Chinna Vandu’s home, where his older brothers fall for her as well. (They’re played by Sriman and Sathyan, who deliver a few laughs, never mind that one of these “comedy” bits has the former exercising on a treadmill in just a towel.) Looking at the scenes slapped together with no flavour, no finish, it’s hard to believe that this is the director who gave us Kalavani and Vaagai Sooda Vaa. Is this what happens when you become big enough to land a big-name star?
There’s a trope that both Naiyaandi and Vanakkam Chennai employ pretty well – a comic flashback based on an old song (one from Rajapart Rangadurai in the former, and one from Sagodhari in the latter) – and a sight gag involving roadside dung works in neither film. There end the parallels. Otherwise, almost everything that Naiyaandi does wrong, Vanakkam Chennai does right. One could question this comparison on the basis that Naiyaandi is a “mass” movie and Vanakkam Chennai is a “class” movie, and that their priorities are different. True. But the intent to speak to as large an audience as possible needn’t preclude the basics – the ability to shape a narrative in a form that pleases the audience while also serving as an indicator of the filmmaker’s skills. And it’s been a while since two movies, released on the same day, had pretty much the same preoccupations. The comparison isn’t far-fetched because both Naiyaandi and Vanakkam Chennai are essentially comedic love stories that get going with an amount of antagonism.
But unlike the early scenes of Naiyaandi, the cat-and-mouse portions in Vanakkam Chennai are a pleasure. The antagonism is built organically into the situation the leads find themselves in, when they discover they’ve been duped into renting the same house. Hence the scene where Ajay (Shiva) and Anjali (Priya Anand), seeking possession of the bedroom, take turns dumping each other’s clothes in the living room. Hence the scene where Ajay is forced to pose as a plumber, in front of Anjali’s local guardian. Their relationship is built so casually and so beautifully that even something as outlandish as a food fight comes off seeming like something that’s very likely to happen.
Why do we buy this food fight, when we balk at the tree-leaping in Naiyaandi – given that both are situations most of us are never likely to encounter outside of the movies? Because Naiyaandi keeps thinking of scenes in terms of just scenes, which exist simply to provide (hopefully) a momentary high, while in Vanakkam Chennai these scenes are parts of a whole. This film is solidly staged – there’s a rhythm to the proceedings. An early scene where Ajay and Anjali, unaware of each other’s presence in the house, keep missing one another is nicely choreographed, with the leads entering and exiting a static frame – and this choreography is referenced later on, in a scene at a marriage hall, where, again, Ajay and Anjali keep missing each other. The writing is clever, but more importantly, it’s clean. The director can be a little too insistent at times – as in the scene where Anjali consults a lawyer about her options regarding the house; in a fluffy rom-com like this, we don’t really need all this i-dotting and t-crossing – but over-cautiousness is preferable, any day, to sloppiness.
Most importantly, we get to know about Ajay and Anjali in small increments and we begin to care about them. (This seems such an elementary thing to say, but it’s shocking how many movies fail in this department.) We see scenes of him at work. We see scenes of her at work. These are not characters shaped with the explicit purpose of falling in love. They seem to have a life of their own, a life that encompasses such unromantic aspects as making a living (in his case) and pursuing a passion (photography, in her case). In Naiyaandi, we’re told that Vanaroja is a dentist, but apart from an early scene and a couple of comic references later, this part of her life plays has no bearing on the story. But here, we begin with a photography exhibition, and Anjali’s passion is woven into the screenplay, right down to a seemingly casual scene where she shoots a blade of grass with a ladybird on it, and this turns out to have severely awww-inducing repercussions later.
Anjali’s photography is worked into the romance too. There’s no love-at-first-sight, no stalking, and when Ajay realises – slowly – that he’s fallen for Anjali, he says something that involves her skills with the camera. It’s a constant presence. And when she realises what he says (and probably feels the first stirrings of a feeling towards him that she has no definition for yet), the camera pans just a wee bit and positions her under flowers, as if her world has shifted just a little on its axis, become just a little more romantic. Seeing Vanakkam Chennai is to be reminded of how stupidly happy a light-hearted love story can make us feel. Scenes that have no business working – like one involving Holi colours – make us smile, and that’s a sign that we are involved with these characters, that we want them to realise, soon, that they need to get on with the business of being with each other.
I had my doubts about Shiva as a romantic lead, but the character of Ajay plays to his strengths (superbly timed wisecracks about, among other things, “ring removing gel”) and downplays his weaknesses. And the sprightly Priya Anand is used wonderfully. Anjali is the rare upper-class urban girl who isn’t one of those alabaster-toned Martian creatures we usually see, and the fact that she’s from London (the hero is, of course, homegrown) isn’t used to make fun of her. In fact, she’s shown to be perfectly capable of taking care of herself, from the moment she lands in India and finds herself in a taxi with a suspicious-looking driver. This, I suppose, is what happens with a woman director in charge. The heroine isn’t a fantasy object, but a flesh-and-blood person (at least to the extent that a flesh-and-blood person can be allowed to exist in a modestly ambitioned rom-com).
Vanakkam Chennai feels so fresh because it’s so understated. The sentimental scenes – like the one where a meeting with Ajay’s mother reminds Anjali of her own – aren’t hammered home. And the laughs – Ajay’s mother posing in a pair of jeans – aren’t underlined. It’s just a tossed-off moment. The film breathes. Even the interval point is refreshingly casual. This is not to say that the movie is without exaggerations. You cannot make too classy a movie in these markets – and the “mass” elements, though understandable, look out-of-place. There’s an overbearing cop played by Oorvasi. There’s a screechy character named Rosie Aunty. And there’s Santhanam, whose tactics to unite Ajay and Anjali belong in an entirely different movie. (But his ruse to get them together in the back seat of a car is gold.) But even in these portions, there’s a sense of a director behind the scenes. They’re not just lazy sops to audiences who may not care for rom-coms. A scene in a terrace features piped music (Nothing’s gonna change my love for you), and the next scene begins with Santhanam mouthing the words to the song. Did you ever think you’d see a Santhanam bit where he’d end up singing a 1980s synth-pop chartbuster?
It’s only with the arrival of Deepak (Rahul Ravindran) that Vanakkam Chennai seriously goes south. This is the very definition of a thankless character, and Deepak makes too late an entrance to make us believe he has a chance with Anjali. The film cannot find anything interesting for him to do – he’s just a spoke-in-the-wheel cliché, and the film slows down while heading to a conclusion we all know is coming. And the presence of this clichéd character seems to fill the director, suddenly, with clichéd ideas. As soon as Deepak embraces Anjali, we see Ajay standing outside the house, and the door closes on him, symbolically and rather unnecessarily. Still, you just need to keep in mind Naiyaandi for a sense of perspective. Both films feature interesting and young soundtracks, but where Naiyaandi squanders Ghibran’s tunes with ludicrous foreign-location choreography, Vanakkam Chennai enhances Anirudh’s score with energy and local colour. And while the action sequences in Naiyaandi are mindless hero-worshipping stretches, the one in Vanakkam Chennai serves up comedy as well as heroine-worship. The small things, sometimes, can make a big difference.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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