“Veeram / Jilla”… Two helpings of masala pongal

Posted on January 11, 2014


A family with five brothers, another family with representatives from three generations, annan-thambi sentiment, amma sentiment, appa sentiment, and in the middle of all this, a big star giving his fans what they want (while also fostering a certain image, with scenes like the one where he advises a truant kid to go to school) – if Faazil and Vikraman collaborated on a “mass” masala movie, it might end up looking like Siva’s Veeram. Early on, we learn that Vinayakam (Ajith Kumar) hates the idea of marriage because he thinks the new bride who enters the household will cause a rift between the five brothers, who sing songs with lines that go One-two-three-four-five / venaam enga kitta wrong-side drive. But of course Vinayakam cannot hold on to this lofty ideal forever. Of course he has to fall in love and shake a leg in a touristy mountainside. (What else is Tamannaah getting paid for? Certainly not her thesping abilities.)

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And so we get this little gem of screenwriting. We learn that Vinayakam, in school, was in love with a girl named Koperundevi (fondly called Kopu). And his brothers hatch a plan to find her and reintroduce her to Vinayakam, so he can fall for her all over again. But… she’s married now. She has kids. So the brothers conspire to do the most logical thing, which is to find another woman named Koperundevi (fondly called Kopu), because, you see, Vinayakam was not in love with that girl so much as her name, and when he meets another (completely random) girl with that name, he is sure to lose his heart to her, just because she bears that name… In a different filmmaking culture, we might wonder: Who dreams up these scenarios, and what do they keep smoking? Here, though, we just hope that these scenes pass by as quickly and as painlessly as possible, given the two-hour-and-forty-minute running time.

Besides, the heroine – even with that weighty name borrowed from a queen of Madurai – is utterly inconsequential. Veeram is about the hero. It is about his declaration that he doesn’t count himself as Thevar or Nadar or Vanniyar, and that his jaathi is the working class. It is about his breaking away from the metro mode of Billa and Arrambam and donning a white veshti and driving a bullock cart and routing villains in front of shrines of fearsome village deities. It is about him proving to his future father-in-law (Nasser, in a reversal of the iconic character he played in Thevar Magan) that ahimsa, as a concept, is all very dandy, but sometimes you just have to kick some serious butt. Everything else – the crude dramatics, the piles of clichés, the characters (especially the bad guys) who come and go as they please – is secondary. In any case, whatever one says is sure to be drowned out by the screams of delirious fans.

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Watching Jilla after Veeram, you could be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu. Both films are set in Madurai. If the hero there hated the idea of marriage, this hero (Vijay) hates cops. Thambi Ramaiah plays a buffoon from the heroine’s family there; he plays a buffoon from the heroine’s family here. Here, too, the hero is fatherless, the heroine (Kajal Agarwal) is role-less. Here too, an action sequence involves a truck smashing into a car, and there’s a chase where the hero tries not to let the passenger(s) in his car know that they are in danger. What’s new in Neason’s Jilla is the presence of Mohanlal. He plays Shiva, a Nayakan-like figure who seems unsure whether he is a nallavan (he helps the needy through unconstitutional means) or a kettavan (he’s essentially a rowdy who lords over everyone else by strong-arming them). This part needs Mohanlal, who shows us how a good actor with good screen presence can keep us from laughing a poorly written character off the screen.

The plot is essentially that of Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti with reversed polarities. (Vijay’s character is even named Shakti.) Here, the father is the criminal, the son the unwavering cop. This sort of setup needs to play out as rock-solid drama. We need situations like, say, Shakti storming out of his father’s house after a clash of ideologies. But Neason doesn’t care about any of that. (We barely register that Shakti seems to be living elsewhere after he becomes a cop.) He wants to fashion a Vijay showcase that allows the actor to remain in his lightweight comfort zone. So every attempt at seriousness is punctured instantly by a stab at comedy, and the film never seems comfortable with its subject. (Shakti’s transformation comes off looking especially ridiculous.) AR Murugadoss, with Thupakki, made the ideal Vijay vehicle, never letting the stakes get too serious. But that’s different from there being no stakes at all, with everything looking preordained. Some nice tunes by Imman apart, there’s nothing in Jilla to justify the three-hour running time. But try telling that to the delirious fans.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil