At the beginning of the basketball drama Vallinam, a note tells us that a country’s growth cannot be measured simply through economic development – human development matters too, and one way to bring about the latter is sport. And for a while, it looks like the director, Arivazhagan, has structured his story to validate this contention. Early on, Krishna’s (Nakulan) coach tells him that he is a good player, but he should learn to be a good team player. Both these facets of the game – individual skill, plus the ability to contribute to the success of one’s team – are on display in the well-choreographed basketball segments. This isn’t the casual dribble-and-shoot we usually see. These are fairly authentic-looking plays.
All sports movies need an opponent – a more successful team to beat, or a stern father who favours studies and forbids his son from playing. In Vallinam, the opponent is cricket, a sport whose players make money when they win, and make money when they lose, while players of other sports consider themselves lucky if they have a ground to practice on. At his college, Krishna runs into Vamsi (Siddharth Jonnalagadda), the captain of the cricket team that has won several trophies. Vamsi is to the college what cricket is to the country. With his swagger, his riches, his bordering-on-birthright belief that what he does is the only thing that matters, he’s the very personification of cricket. (In an embarrassingly literal stretch, the climatic basketball game is mirrored, play for play, in Vamsi’s cricket-based videogame.) And when Vamsi challenges Krishna and his ragtag team to win a basketball tournament, the stage is set for a rousing (if boilerplate) underdog saga.
The trick to doing these triumph-of-the-little-people films – at a mainstream level, anyway – is to keep things simple. The gruff coach who dispenses tough love. The sweetheart who cheers from the sidelines. The tough road to the finals, where our team will be pitted against a formidable adversary. The inspirational speech, at the end, that revives flagging spirits when failure seems imminent. All one has to do is paint these must-haves in slightly newer shades, something that Hollywood has perfected into an art.
But Arivazhagan, to his credit, is more ambitious. The love angle between Krishna and Meera (Mrudhula) isn’t just another instance of rich girl falling for poor boy. Things happen with these two that you don’t expect in such a movie. And at first, I thought she was just kidding when she refers to his team as the Pandavas, but later, we see that this is a subtext that runs through the film. The director reimagines cricket-versus-basketball as a kind of holy war, and he announces this when Lord Krishna blows his conch on a screen that’s playing Karnan. (We see, then, that our hero’s name isn’t accidental. Neither is the heroine’s.) But these layers, while interesting on paper, aren’t worked out properly, and the rest of the film – the basic sports drama – suffers as a result.
The first half is mostly frittered away on silly college episodes and songs, when we needed more scenes that showed what basketball really means to Krishna. We get a couple of passing shots when a basketball rolls out from under a bed and when Krishna chucks a can of soda into a dustbin that’s far away – but the tragedy (involving a friend) that has paralysed him from playing the game isn’t detailed enough, and neither is the event (involving another friend) that brings him back to the game. They bond over an action sequence and a “friendship song,” but that isn’t enough. And the coach (Atul Kulkarni ) barely makes an impression. He barks a few orders, gives us his backstory in a couple of lines, and he’s out.
We want to see how Krishna and his cohorts overcome the numerous obstacles erected by Vamsi, who even sends over goons to threaten Krishna’s mother in Trichy. But word of this never gets back to Krishna. Why, then, have this scene? It’s not as though we’re invested in her. In her only other appearance, a lot earlier, we saw her grumbling about Krishna while slaving away in a dimly lit kitchen, and I remembered that we never really saw her face. I also remembered how nicely the shot was set up, how much importance was given to its compositional aspect, its interplay of light and shade. In that regard too, Arivazhagan isn’t a lazy filmmaker, and at a time when most Tamil films have begun to look like flatly lit television serials, without the slightest interest in framing and staging, this quality cannot be underestimated.
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