It’s probably easier for a drama to handle an exotic medical condition. Moondram Pirai was about a woman with amnesia. Sethu told the story of a man who was, for all practical purposes, an amnesiac. The loss of memory, in these movies, was a vital part of the plot. Action films, on the other hand, are torn between the contradictory impulses of sticking to the details of the condition and having to showcase the protagonist’s heroism, which cannot be whittled away by a mere “defect” – and the emphasis invariably tilts towards the latter. Anniyan walked this tightrope fairly well. But in other films – Maattraan with its conjoined twins, Thaandavam with its echolocation – the hero could have just as well been “normal,” and things wouldn’t have turned out all that differently. Naan Sigappu Manidhan is an action movie, the usual vigilante vendetta saga, but the way it handles its exotic medical condition is unusual. The hero, Indiran (an effectively understated Vishal), is a narcoleptic, and this aspect is not just a cool marketing gimmick. It has been integrated into the very fibre of the film.
Indiran drops off into a deep sleep whenever he is overcome by extreme emotion. As a boy in school, he falls asleep – literally; one minute, he’s standing in line, and the next, he’s on the ground , crumpled into a heap – when the student behind him sneezes loudly. And as a grown-up, he collapses during every imaginable situation, from crossing the road to celebrating a cricket match on television. This, as you can imagine, is hardly conducive to discharging the duties of a hero. How will he romance the heroine if he’s going to be felled by the smallest surge of emotion? And how will he fight the villains when the fear of facing them – or the adrenalin rush while charging at them – can knock him out?
At least for a while, there are no answers. We keep watching Indiran as he goes about the business of living, his condition always at the forefront. It’s the narcolepsy that engineers his meeting with the heroine, Meera (Lakshmi Menon, who continues to execute interesting variations on the tired old things a love interest is contracted to do). It’s the narcolepsy that nets him a job suited to his unique abilities (or disabilities). When he needs the help of an influential man, it’s the narcolepsy that convinces the man to come to Indiran’s aid. The narcolepsy is worked into a song (Indiran faints, and the backup dancers carry on, as if nothing had happened, and then he wakes up, dusts himself off, and continues dancing) and even the comic scenes, like the one where he meets Meera in a mall. And it’s due to the narcolepsy that the shocking interval twist comes about. He’s asleep. We think he’ll rise and be the hero. He stays asleep.
This is the second time, after Pandiya Naadu, that Vishal has chosen to play a reluctant hero, an almost non-heroic hero, someone who does what he sets out to do but is still left wanting – and the sanguinary title, taken from a Rajinikanth movie, is somewhat deceptive. This isn’t the realm of the feel-good Rajinikanth blockbuster. This is more sombre territory. As in that older film, and another one around the same time that did something really unexpected in the context of a Rajinikanth movie, the hero vanquishes the villain, but at great personal cost. It’s the sort of thing that makes us leave the theatre with a twinge. We’re happy the good guy got the bad guys, and yet… The bittersweet end is quite touching. It involves someone who’s asleep, but this time, it’s not Indiran.
The trend in action movies, these days, is to avoid anything serious in the first half and concentrate, instead, on romance and comedy. Naan Sigappu Manidhan does that too, but here, this is exactly what’s needed to establish just how far from a conventional hero Indiran is. I could have lived without the scene where Meera invites her friends to observe Indiran’s condition. (They behave abominably.) More importantly, the portions where Meera discovers the “cure” for Indiran’s condition aren’t worked out very well, and her subsequent actions – one of them in a swimming pool – feel rushed. We don’t get a sense of the desperation that goads her. But the director, Thiru, displays a lot of control in scenes that could have erupted into melodrama. When Meera, who’s rich, takes Indiran to her home, her father (Jayaprakash) makes his objections known in the classiest possible manner. He makes Indiran realise that this just isn’t a good match. His exasperation with his daughter is equally restrained. Where another father might have locked her up and thrown away the key, he tries to reason with her.
And then we enter the second half, and the film goes haywire. It isn’t unusual for a movie with masala elements to end up ludicrous if you think about it, but the really good masala movies come with a strong core of emotional logic (to counter the general lack of “logical” logic), and when enveloped by this emotion, we don’t have the time to think – we just feel. (And then, it doesn’t look ludicrous at all.) That doesn’t happen here. A crime is committed and Indiran has to dole out punishment, and the way he goes about this isn’t the least bit convincing. The way he connects the dots and pulls together clues, the way he eliminates the red herrings, the way the twists ( a couple too many, for my taste) are presented , the way key conversations are overheard, the way an all-important water source is miraculously made available towards the end – everything feels so… convenient. And the speed-breaker songs keep pulling us out of a narrative that’s already compromised by characters who change dramatically (Meera’s father, suddenly, drops her off at Indiran’s house) or disappear completely (like Indiran’s mother, played by Sharanya Ponvannan, who seems to have made her peace with being this generation’s Kamala Kamesh).
The bigger problem, for me, was that the traumatic incident at interval point just doesn’t seem warranted. It’s too manipulative, too much of a contrivance, especially after what we learn from the long and tiring flashback – though the sexual angle of this development is very much of a piece with the rest of the film. One of the most refreshing aspects of Naan Sigappu Manidhan is its unfussy acknowledgment of sex. Men want it and talk about it, casually. Women want it and talk about it, casually. (We saw this in Kalyana Samayal Saadham too, but that was an upmarket rom-com – this one’s more for the masses.) Meera even accompanies Indiran to a soft-porn screening and watches with amusement when he gets turned on and falls asleep. And men don’t seem to love women any less when they use sex as a bargaining chip. Should these touches be allowed to exonerate the missteps? Probably not. But given the general state of hero-oriented Tamil cinema, where a hollow kind of masculinity is endlessly celebrated, it’s nice to root for a hero who isn’t a slacker but a brilliant student, and who sits down with his pals for a cup of tea, rather than booze, and who gets rejected by a girl his mother sets him up with (just as Meera rejects the man her father sets her up with). For the first time, I find myself interested in whatever Vishal’s doing next.
* Naan Sigappu Manithan = I see red
* Moondram Pirai = see here
* Sethu = see here
* Anniyan = see here
* Maattraan = see here
* Thaandavam = see here
* Pandiya Naadu = see here
* water source = see here
* Kamala Kamesh = see here
* Kalyana Samayal Saadham = see here
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