I felt my heart sink at the beginning of Goli Soda, with its vérité scenes of crowds, dogs, druggies, and trucks being unloaded at Chennai’s Koyambedu market. I thought I was in for another bout of breast-beating about cool kids exiting Cafe Coffee Day and grinding their have-not counterparts under the heel of an imported sneaker – a social issue that is no doubt worthy of serious cinematic exploration, but not in the hands of our filmmakers, with their sentimentality and their banal, black-and-white view of how the world (and cinema) works. But the director Vijay Milton – thankfully – has other ideas. Goli Soda is essentially a sequel in spirit to Pandiraj’s Pasanga, which viewed childhood not as a blissed-out period of innocence but a miniature version of adulthood, with the same desires to succeed, the same fears of failing, the same instincts of competition, and the same drives to get even. Pasanga was informed as much by how adults behave in life as they do in the movies, Tamil movies – and so is Goli Soda, which is essentially a masala movie whose heroes are teenagers (Kishore, Sree Raam, Pandi and Murugesh, the kids from Pasanga, whose gradual aging, here, is shown through the sprouting of peach-fuzz moustaches).
The masala movie clichés are all there – but with tiny tweaks. The lines about natpu (“friendship thaanga ellaame”) and kaadhal (something about true love versus time-pass love) go to a girl and the item song goes to a guy (a surprise guest star). The meet-cute happens between two very ordinary people, and we buy this “romance” because the “heroine” doesn’t look like a marble-skinned mannequin. When rowdies chase the “heroines,” we expect the “heroes” to come and rescue them, but deliverance comes in other ways, through other children. At other times, the tweaks come from seeing youngsters in the place of the adults who’d normally enact these routines – whether it’s girl-watching (sorry, “figure” watching) or recalling Ilayaraja hits (Chinna mani kuyile) or avenging a rape (indirectly) or standing up to the all-powerful villain (very grown-up, and with a luxuriant moustache) the way David stood up to Goliath.
The signature achievement of Goli Soda is its ruthless unmasking of how hollow most of our masala movies are, and how, with a little imagination, just a little, you can make a film whose appeal is broad and which does not insult the audience. (And given that most of our films are masala films, this lesson is direly needed.) In other movies, we roll our eyes at the appearance of the amma sentiment – but here, it’s never allowed to become maudlin. Aachi (Sujatha) may be the kind of loving mother figure who asks these boys if they brushed their teeth and berates them for sleeping late, but she also possesses a sharp tongue, and the kids, in turn, tease her as “karuppu Jyothika” and repay her kindnesses by putting the moves on… well, you’ll have to see the film and find out. We laugh, we feel sad, we genuinely care about these people.
The major and the minor characters – the bystander in the shiny shirt taking phone-camera pictures to upload them on Facebook; the woman who glances at a cup of coffee gone cold and realises something’s wrong; the man who opens his wallet and gazes at a family picture from happier (and more prosperous) times; the villain who behaves consistently (first slapping underlings for wrongdoing, then, a minute later, defending them) – are written so well that they become flesh-and-blood people. You don’t need a long flashback to imbue someone with a backstory – you just need good writing, good acting, and a fleeting shot can serve the purpose. Why is the villain so nice to Aachi? We get the answer in a single line. Even a one-rupee coin gets something of a character arc. In an early scene, one of the boys makes a joke about how, like Rajinikanth in Sivaji, he will make his fortunes from it. Then, this empty boast turns somewhat true when the coin is handed over as advance for a business. Finally, the coin ends up on the forehead of the villain, a warning that he could end up dead. With all this, and with comedy (some lines are outrageously funny) and romance and drama and sentiment and action and “mass” moments and even a smattering of songs Goli Soda lasts just a smidge over two hours. That’s the film’s other triumph: economical storytelling.
Then there’s the triumph of the action choreography, which in our big-hero masala movies is almost always perfunctory, with goons spinning into orbit as if activated by a remote-control switch. A brilliant stretch in the second half, after the boys take a loan from the villain and end up in his debt, shows us how a scene needn’t be plausible (from what we know from real life) in order for it to be believable on screen. How do four kids take on a number of burly goons, even with instructions from an imaginative action director who has them using props from their surroundings? Had the sequence been edited normally, we’d have registered disbelief, but the gimmicky editing here – frames literally hurtle into one another, creating an added sense of violence in the form (in addition to the content) – makes us forget our doubts. That the exquisite culmination of a romance, through a green dress, occurs immediately after is just icing on the cake.
A major drawback of Goli Soda is in its employment of another staple of masala movies: music. It isn’t just that the songs aren’t especially memorable. They just about do the job, as in the case of the tune based on the old hit, Paattu paadava, which plays behind scenes of one of the boys applying fairness cream and the others taking turns to wear the sole decent T-shirt that they have in order to ogle at the girls passing by. But the background score is terrible – yet another exhibit in the ongoing case to abolish the solo violin over sentimental moments. When little children appear in school, we hear tinkling music, and after a reference to a prayer song (in the film’s most ludicrous sequence, the “rowdy reforms” scene), we hear the soft drone of the tambura. The Mickey Mousing score is an insult to the imagination in the rest of the film.
The other (and lesser) problem is the occasional overemphasis. The conceit of these kids having no identity is literalised by a few too many scenarios and lines involving ID proofs, and the scenes involving a girl and her father (who’s separated from his wife) feel forced and awkward. Too much is made of a rowdy sewing razor blades into a towel, when this has no real payoff. But there are other moments that compensate, like the casual discussion, over lunch, about how, but for an accident of birth, these boys could be in English-medium schools, or the revelation that they missed out on a girl in the neighbourhood because they work nights, when everyone else is sleeping. The point is tossed off, not hammered home, but its import lingers – these boys lead the kind of lives boys their age shouldn’t have to. There’s even the whiff of a message. I will be very surprised if there’s a more entertaining, more inventive, more well-acted masala movie this year.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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