How does one describe atmosphere in the context of cinema? To call it the very air that the movie needs to breathe would not be an exaggeration – but that’s too unspecific. Atmosphere is in the cinematography, which adds tone and texture to the happenings. It’s in the music, which percolates from one scene to the next and glues them together, even if they occur in different locations. It’s sometimes in the staging, the way the shots are set up, the way the interiors and exteriors are brought to life, so that the film feels like an organic whole, from start to finish. Without atmosphere, a movie is just a collection of scenes that fit oddly, like misshapen jigsaw pieces. We may be able to get a sense of the whole puzzle, but only in our heads. We sense what could have been. What we see, though, is someone labouring to make the pieces fit. It isn’t pretty.
What Nee Enge En Anbe could have been is a solid reimagining of Sujoy Ghosh’s intensely atmospheric Kahaani, rejiggered for the Tamil audience (or at least, the director Sekhar Kammula’s estimation of the sensibilities of the Tamil audience). The story is more or less the same. A young NRI returns to India in search of her missing husband. The major difference is that in the Hindi original, the heroine was pregnant, a development that instantly drew us to her plight and, at the end, resulted in a memorably pulpy twist. But we cannot have a Tamil film based on a pregnant heroine (her name is Anamika), especially if she’s played by a glamorous star like Nayantara, who can’t even part with her fake eyelashes. (In some close-ups, it appears as if a lavishly plumaged bird has come to roost in the outer reaches of her eyes.) How, now, will she earn our sympathies?
So the director cooks up a series of utterly conventional damsel-in-distress scenarios. When Anamika takes her complaint to the police station, she’s told, rudely, that her husband has probably run away. Later, she is propositioned by a lecherous senior cop. The peril of being female and alone in India is a terrific subject for a movie – but Nee Enge En Anbe is not that movie. It is a police procedural wrapped in a vigilante thriller, with mysterious hard disks and a soft-spoken assassin on the loose. Kahaani wisely folded its feminist inquiries into the subtext. When these layers are made the text, we get a movie that’s stranded awkwardly between ideas and action.
The revelations are dispensed with in lumps of ugly exposition. The twist ending is not built up to – when we look back at what happened, it doesn’t really add up. The chases are badly staged. There are many unintentional laughs, particularly from the ineptness with which a beehive is written into the script. And when a great tragedy occurs, we are manipulated in the cheapest possible manner, with a little boy placed at the centre.
Still, some of this could have been salvaged had there been an iota of atmosphere, which can sometimes be manifest even in the way the characters are shaped. The assassin in Kahaani was introduced to us as a boring life insurance agent used to getting screamed at by a much younger boss. Then, this man, whom we dismissed as a baby-faced loser, surprised us by whipping out a gun and offing a series of innocents. In Nee Enge En Anbe, the man has no shading, no alternate life. He’s just a killer who comes out of nowhere. It may difficult to explain atmosphere in the context of cinema, but it’s easy to detect the lack of it. Why go about fixing something that ain’t broke?
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