“Irandaam Ulagam”… Across the universe

Posted on November 23, 2013


With just a handful of movies, Selvaraghavan has announced himself a major filmmaker, and it falls on us to look at his latest venture, Irandaam Ulagam, as the (worthy) next installment in a thematically connected oeuvre as well as a (problematic) standalone film. The former, first. At least for a while, the love story here has its polarities reversed. Earlier in this director’s career, the men drove the movies. They were the actors – the women merely the acted upon. And there’s a hint of that quality – sexism? Misogyny? – here when we alight on a faraway world where, a voiceover informs us, the women get no respect and are treated like objects. (The film keeps cutting between two love stories, one on this distant planet, the other on earth – it is, in short,  both sci-fi and chick flick, spiced with a dash of action-adventure. Is there another mainstream filmmaker who stomps across genre boundaries as boldly as Selvaraghavan?) There’s no love in this other world – only lust. It’s no surprise, then, when we’re introduced to Varna (Anushka Shetty) and we note that her face is perpetually clenched in a scowl.

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And yet, the film provides her the “heroine introduction shot,” a mini-action sequence where she bests a fantastic and fearsome creature of the wild. In the process, she even executes a somersault. No such flourishes await the hero (Arya, who plays Madhu on earth and Maruvan on the other planet). We meet Madhu as he fulfills the traditional heroine-duties. He may not be shepherding schoolchildren across the road by halting traffic on either side, but he comes close – he volunteers for blood drives and spends his spare time with patients in a hospital. Even on earth, it’s the heroine who makes the first move. Ramya (Anushka Shetty again) falls for Madhu’s soft and kind-hearted nature and decides to tell him she wants to marry him. And like the heroine in one of the early Selvaraghavan films, he shrinks away – he says no.

At least Maruvan aligns himself somewhat with our expectations of a Selvaraghavan hero by falling for Varna. He spies on her as she bathes in a river, and, later, pounces on her from behind – only, she turns around and knees him in his man parts. And when Madhu lands up on this planet, she makes him her slave and calls him maadu, cow. She proves she’s better than Madhu when it comes to shinnying up trees and performing tricks and wielding a sword – and she’s the latest addition to Selvaraghavan’s recent gallery of strong women, a turnaround that can probably be traced back to the prostitute in Pudhupettai whose emotional blackmail ensured that the hero conferred legitimacy on her child. Thereon, we’ve had the ass-kicking expedition leader in Aayirathil Oruvan and the steely caregiver of Mayakkam Enna, who bore her husband’s eccentricities with the patience of a saint and determination of a pit bull.

The men, by contrast, are emotional fools. Selvaraghavan really makes the most complicated love stories. (Even when his films aren’t quite “love stories,” they lay out long and torturous routes to happily-ever-after.) After rejecting Ramya’s proposal, Madhu falls for her – and this time, she says no. She’s engaged to someone else now, but she doesn’t fail to tell Madhu that she’s going to Goa for a medical camp (she’s a doctor) and that her bus will leave at 8 a.m. Without these nudges, he’d be nowhere. And unlike in earlier Selvaraghavan films, they’re peers. They’re both educated, they’re both fair-skinned, they’re both “civilised,” and they belong to the same socioeconomic class, as does the man whom Ramya is going to marry. (He backs out eventually due to a shameful reason that does his gender no favours.) This is a drastic change for this filmmaker, this former bard of the brutes. The obstacles to love are different – death, distance, perhaps even destiny. He’s steering away from his comfort zones, and it’s thrilling to watch.

But some things haven’t changed – thankfully, in my opinion, and your mileage may vary. The frankness, for instance, with which we appraise the objects of our affection (and in Selvaraghavan’s films, they’re sometimes really objects). But again, the objectified, this time, is the man. In the film’s most quintessentially Selvaraghavan moment, one of Ramya’s girlfriends notes that Madhu may turn out to be the kind of guy who burns her with a cigarette on their wedding night, and then goes on to evaluate parts of his anatomy, eyes and lips and thighs (thighs!). Though in this respect, Maruvan returns the favour by coolly eying the contents of Varna’s splayed skirt. This film too has a lovelorn dirge sung by Dhanush, and a messianic character like the protagonist of Aayirathil Oruvan. (Here, he’s a prophet of love.) And once again, Selvaraghavan gives us a glimpse into his obsession with father figures, combining this with his obsession with fecal matter. If the protagonist of 7G Rainbow Colony described himself as “therula kadakkara saani,” and if the characters in Mayakkam Enna kept referring to “aai,” we get a scene here where Madhu cleans his wheelchair-bound father’s bottom.

How does this father turn up on a scooter in a later scene, around the midway point? This nicely surreal moment sets into motion the quotes we saw at the beginning, about there being many worlds and that we inhabit many selves. The crux of Irandaam Ulagam is frightfully poignant: it deals with a love lost and the efforts to help this lost lover gain love. We should be weeping buckets – I sat there dry-eyed. Which brings us to Irandaam Ulagam as a standalone film. It’s a love story without a shred of genuine passion. We keep hearing about this grand, exalted emotion that will make flowers bloom, and we see those flowers bloom, but we don’t feel a thing. It’s all abstraction. Or put differently, everything’s on paper, not on screen. A teary-eyed Madhu says, at some point, “Naanga romba sandhoshama irundhom,” that he was very happy with Ramya. The line makes you think of years of bliss, while what they shared were mere moments, and even these moments aren’t quite built up to.

She falls for him, and distances herself from him, and then drops hints, and when he picks up on those hints and comes calling, she calls him a porukki (though he’s far from a loafer in the sense the word usually conjures up in a Selvaraghavan movie), and a few minutes later, he’s her “Madhu baby.” As for Varna, she remains indifferent to Maruvan’s overtures and then she comes to hate him for clipping her wings, and then, without us really seeing why, she begins to refer to him as her husband. Selvaraghavan acknowledges this confusion. He writes a line for Varna about her fluctuating emotions, and he offers visual cues for falling in love (rain on earth, snow on the other planet). But we, the audience, need to feel these things, not just see them or hear about them – and that doesn’t happen. Everything is low-key. The scenes don’t land hard enough. Maybe this is how Selvaraghavan wanted it, without the purple poetry that seeped through his earlier romantic tracks. But I, for one, felt the loss. (And it’s not as if this is a subtle movie, exactly.)

We get purple skies, though. Along with neon green and orange and yellow. We get exotic birds of prey that keep flitting across the landscape. These special effects are nicely done, especially the lion with the head of a Rasta rapper and the tail of a scorpion. But otherwise, we don’t seem to be in another planet, just another country – and not that different a country, either, given that the people there (a bunch of Caucasians) speak the most “local” Tamil, calling each other anney and mouthing such cautions as “Dei innikki nee saava pore.” We could be hearing lines from Pudhupettai, and the Chennai connection is (inadvertently? Deliberately?) underlined by this group of Tamil-speakers that worships a powerful woman they call… Amma. This Gaia-like being is played by an actress who looks too young to be assuming Earth Mother duties (or maybe that was the point) – and the rest of the casting doesn’t work either (though it says something that these foreigners, at times, end up doing better lip-sync than most of our heroines). The king with the silver crown and the velvet-curtain robes kept cracking me up. Everyone looks like they’re playing dress-up in a school play. Did no one giggle on the set? Was no one aware of how far from the writer-director’s vision on paper the film had crawled?

And the leads never catch fire. Anushka Shetty does the warrior-princess duties well enough, but given the vagaries in her character(s), her emotional scenes with her hero(es) just don’t connect. (Some of that class warfare might have infused a bit of push-pull chemistry, without which we’re left with nothing.) And Arya, with his bland urban-boy looks (and with chalk-white vampire makeup in the role of Maruvan), is the most unlikely Selvaraghavan hero – imagine Aadhi from Kaadhal Kondain as that film’s protagonist. When a character returns from the dead, you’d think he’d be surprised (I certainly was) – but he plays the moment as though it was inevitable. He certainly brings physical heft to the part of Maruvan, and I could see why Dhanush, Selvaraghavan’s in-house repertory theatre of one, wasn’t cast, but I missed him terribly in certain scenes, like the one where Madhu pretends to be in love with Ramya’s professor. Dhanush would have made it a golden “porukki moment.” Love it or hate it, the film would have come alive. Here, the scene sits still on screen and quietly dies.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil