“Pandiya Naadu”… Ordinary people

Posted on November 6, 2013


Suseenthiran, in his short career, has proved that he does better work on a small scale, with smaller stars (or sometimes without any stars, as in the terrific Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer, earlier this year), so I must say I approached Pandiya Naadu with some scepticism. The film begins dramatically, with the death of a local gangster, and when the womenfolk gathers to wail, someone suggests that instead of mourning the man’s death, they should be celebrating his life. A gaana song-and-dance ensues – but it doesn’t erupt out of nowhere. It’s been given context, mood (and, as it turns out, the death of this gangster is a crucial plot point, so there’s some narrative thrust behind this number as well). This is what a commercial filmmaker should do – bow before the must-haves and yet not be a slave to these conventions. I began to wonder, then, if Suseenthiran was going to spring a surprise and give us a large-scale movie, a hero-centric movie, which also shows signs of being made by a singular filmmaker.

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But this inventiveness isn’t consistently sustained in the pre-interval stretch, which plays out in two fairly conventional tracks. In the first, we see the rise of Ravi (the very well-cast Sharath Lohithaswa, who’s a looming physical presence), the gangster who succeeds the man who just died. In the second, we witness events built around the timid Shiva (Vishal), the second son in a happy joint family. Shiva is not the typical Tamil-film hero. In his introduction scene, he gets slapped, and he stammers when nervous – and he doesn’t even drive a macho bike, just a gender-neutral scooter. What follows is an amusing scene that slyly subverts our notions of the ultra-masculine hero. Back in the folds of his family, Shiva is asked why he didn’t retaliate, and he explains that if he had, then the thug who slapped him would have returned with four more goons, for revenge, and if Shiva beat up these men as well, then the four would turn to forty, and the violence would never end. You have to laugh. In one stroke, Suseenthiran makes us see the madness behind the hero-glorification we take for granted in our one-man-versus-many action sequences. Which middle-class citizen, after all, can hope to match up to professional gangsters?

Even when it comes to love, that other inviolable duty of the hero, we get the scene where Shiva refuses to agree to an alliance just by looking at a photograph of the girl (which, when you think of it, is a kind of “love at first sight” scenario) – he’d rather meet her, get to know her, see if they are compatible. And when he meets one such girl, at a coffee shop, it results in comedy. Suseenthiran tweaks these developments just so – we’re not seeing anything radically different, and yet, there’s enough newness to keep us hooked. But soon after, Malar (Lakshmi Menon) enters the story – she’s the heroine, and of course, she has to make her appearance while shepherding a group of children (she’s a schoolteacher) – and the clichés begin to pile up. There’s the love-at-first-sight song. There are the scenes where Shiva goes up to Malar and tries to make an impression. Suddenly, the film begins to feel contrived, cinematic.

Not for long, luckily. After a story twist that harks back to Suseenthiran’s Naan Mahaan Alla, Shiva is filled with bloodlust. He wants to kill Ravi – and Pandiya Naadu really takes off. (I wish our filmmakers would sometimes sit down and question the need for two-and-a-half hour narratives, when losing thirty minutes can make a pretty-decent movie a truly great one.) Earlier, we saw that Shiva was a very ordinary kind of leading man, and this ordinariness becomes the film’s USP. During his quest, he does nothing extraordinary – just basic things, ordinary things, like following his quarry (on that scooter), tapping a phone, and fighting back with a brick or a bottle or whatever else is at hand. These action sequences aren’t super-choreographed wire-fu items, but just a collection of… ordinary moves. The suspense, too, stems from Shiva’s ordinariness. How, we wonder, will a man so untrained, so raw manage to outwit these savage gangsters, especially Ravi, who’s such a menace? Even at the end, there is no triumphalism – just a small, ordinary smile that things (thankfully) have worked out.

Barring one terrible intrusion – an uncharacteristically lusty overture by Malar, resulting in a mood-killing song situation – the latter portions work beautifully, and they’re imbued with a surprising (at least for this kind of film) dash of existentialism, the acknowledgment that we can make all the plans we want, but life’s always going to throw googlies at us. You could be in the middle of a nerve-racking mission and the family may insist on putting you through an engagement ceremony. You think you’re the only one after the villain who’s put your loved ones through hell, and you find that someone else has similar ideas, which makes your work that much more difficult. You could fall for a girl that a gangster falls for, and the resulting events can cause their own kind of chaos. You can track the villain’s whereabouts and make plans that this is where you’re going to kill him, but you may find that that is not how things will play out – you’re going to have to improvise, on the spot. Suseenthiran stages the genre staples well enough – the fight in a bus station; the suspense around an assassination attempt in a theatre – but what he does around these generic scenarios is this movie’s secret strength. That’s what shows that he’s no… ordinary filmmaker.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil