In his previous film, Sillunu Oru Kaadhal, the director Krishna lost his way in trying to balance an intimate story with the overblown must-haves of a star-driven movie. He doesn’t make that mistake in Nedunchalai, which is toplined by Aari and and a terrific newcomer named Shivada. This is a rock-solid B-movie. If movies could be classified by gender, Nedunchalai is a robust, moustache-twirling male. It has no use for poetry. It doesn’t waste time on tear-jerker sentimentality. It doesn’t want to elevate our taste, ennoble our souls. What a bloody relief. All it wants to do is tell a story in the best manner possible, with craft and confidence. I had a pretty good time – this, despite the censor board’s cluelessness. This is an adult movie. Coarseness is part of its texture. Why mute the vulgarity? Why not slap a rating on it that will keep away children? How will our cinema grow if we continue to infantilise it?
Nedunchalai is about a highway robber named Murugan (Aari), and his legend is built up right from the flashback that details the brutal circumstances of his birth. And when he becomes a man, he begins to chase night-time trucks laden with goods. The camera drops to gaze at his shadow, beneath his pounding feet, as a wail in the soundtrack describes him perfectly – he’s a nedunchalai boochaandi. This choice of profession dusts the cobwebs off the hero. Usually, when a film features someone like Murugan, he’s a politician’s sidekick or a troublemaking drunk, but here he steals cans of Dalda and Solidaire TV sets. These heists offer a respite from the typical action scenes, and even those, when they arrive, are staged excitingly, like the one in a field ablaze with bonfires, with sparks soaring into the air.
Like many films these days, Nedunchalai is set in the 1980s, but Krishna doesn’t overdo it. A few Ilayaraja hits are hummed. MGR’s demise is mourned. But the film is more than these surface touches – it is fashioned along the lines of the cinema from that era. The boisterous routines between Sekar (Salim Kumar) and his portly sidekick are reminiscent of the Goundamani-Senthil comedy tracks. (There’s a lot of sly comedy here, and the judge in a courtroom scene is a riot.) The heroine, a spirited Malayali named Manga (Shivada) who runs a roadside dhaba, brings to mind the character played by Lakshmi in Ennuyir Kannamma. In fact, the story itself is one of those Nallavanuku Nallavan-type essays of a rowdy mellowing into a good man.
But at every point, where we expect cliché, there’s a twist. We think that Murugan and the weed-smoking cop Maasanamuthu (Prashant Narayanan) will face off in a love/lust triangle over Manga, but that’s not it. We expect a hero-villain clash in the climax, but that’s not it. We brace ourselves for one of those dreadful rowdy-turns-good-through-the-power of-love contrivances, but that’s not it. (He turns good due to a revelation that shakes his foundations, when he realises that everything he has believed in so far is false.) We look at Sekar as just a buffoon, but that’s not it – he’s a canny player. The only cliché is probably that Murugan won’t look at Manga that way, while Maasanamuthu happily slides his foot up her skirt. (He gets clubbed for his efforts.)
The staging is atmospheric, the storytelling muscular – though as the film goes along, it loses some of its fizz. It’s a half-hour too long, and the Injaathey song, though lovely, is shot with the kind of overripe imagery that doesn’t fit in with the gritty atmosphere surrounding it. I could have also lived without the pat coda. But these niggles are easily brushed aside in a work made with so much vision. Yes, I said vision. The word is too often yoked to films which attempt to do lofty things, but it’s really just about how you see your film, how much you work on it, how much care you lavish on every frame. There isn’t a lazy moment in Nedunchalai. It’s one of the season’s happiest surprises.
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