The place is Panimalai. The subject is talk. A young man hesitates to tell a woman that he loves her. A father screams at his son, who’s splayed out in front of the TV instead of looking for a job. Arvind (the genial Dulquer Salman), a door-to-door salesman with a fondness for monochrome sweaters, needs to speak in order to make a living – and so does the anchor of a TV channel (Balaji Mohan, the director). Meanwhile, Anjana (Nazriya Nazim), still coming to terms with her father’s marriage to Vidya (a glowing Madhoo, who seems to have retreated into a cryogenic chamber post Roja), sulks in silence.
As he proved in Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi, Mohan has a terrific ear for light humour. Panimalai, a hill station, is described as “Switzerland-oda chitti ponnu.”And RJ Balaji has a rollicking cameo that recalls his real-life travails with the film fraternity. But in Vaayai Moodi Pesavum, Mohan has his eyes on a bit of satire as well, as he unleashes a disease named Dumb Flu, which results in the loss of speech. And then, as if he expended all his imagination in dreaming up this brilliant conceit, he fills the rest of his film with clichés: the girl who has issues with her stepmom, the boy falling for a girl who has a boyfriend, the gruff old man who’s estranged from his son, the portly best friend from Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi who struggles to connect with women, and, especially, the boyfriend who’s so joyless and controlling that we wonder why this girl bothers with him. Has this character ever worked in the movies? Why waste precious screen time on someone who is clearly going to be sidelined by the hero by the end? These trite developments are further compromised by the trite dialogue. When not thinking of jokes, Mohan’s lines are depressingly functional. There’s no zing.
This is not to say that Mohan is a lazy filmmaker. He may, in fact, be the opposite. Throughout the film, we get the sense of the envelope being pushed. Anjana’s school-going stepbrother keeps asking for notepads, and finally we see why. It says something about a writer-filmmaker when even the minor characters are given character arcs. As for Arvind, the product he sells, an adhesive named Mr. Fix-It, becomes shorthand for his character as well – he’s always trying to patch things up in broken situations and relationships. But something’s off in the first half, which is amiable but a little dull. Mohan is a tasteful filmmaker who doesn’t oversell a moment. Arvind’s generousness in the case of the orphanage where he was raised isn’t allowed to sink into sentimentality. When the person who runs the orphanage refuses his money, he impishly stuffs the cash in a child’s hands and flees. This is the kind of thing Mani Ratnam would have done in the 1980s. But this tastefulness, when combined with a lack of event, results in a lot of pleasant but pointless scenes where we feel the director is just trying to pad up the running time. It’s as if he decided to save the Dumb Flu portions for the post-interval stretch – and that’s fine. We could use more scenes with Arvind and Anjana, Anjana and her father and her stepmother, Arvind and the orphanage. Instead, we are repeatedly shunted off to one of two long-running subplots, the first about an actor (‘Nuclear Star’ Bhoomesh, played by John Vijay) and an angry bunch of drunks protesting against the negative portrayal of alcoholics in one of his films, and the second about a self-serving politician named Sundaralingam (Pandiarajan). The situations are funny the first couple of times – the YouTube mashup with Sundaralingam is an instant classic – and then they quickly turn tiresome. There’s too much waffling around.
It’s in the second half, after the Dumb Flu epidemic strikes, that the film really takes off. Something happens to the people of Panimalai – and then, everything that seemed like a cliché earlier becomes fresh and funny again. I found the background score very strident when something gentle and whimsical (like the score in Barfi!) might have been appropriate – though the cheesy Priyasakhi refrain that plays over a comic-romantic track is priceless. But otherwise, we see how ambitious the filmmaking is, and how a smart filmmaker can imbue even a “light entertainer” with a strong sensibility. The gags keep coming, and the satire becomes more pointed, as in the brilliant scene with Sundaralingam that skewers the stock answers that are a fixture at media interactions. Even here, though, I wondered if Mohan couldn’t have pushed for a little more outrageousness. He seems happy to coast along in the “pleasant” zone. I felt he could have done more with his premise. Towards the end, when things revert to normalcy, the film slows down again, with scenes that don’t seem necessary, but I don’t want to be too hard on a film that places its faith on its script rather than on stars, and goes where most Tamil filmmakers don’t even dream of going. And did I detect a bit of self-commentary? Vidya is a writer whose first novel was well-received, and whose second one failed to connect with the public. Arvind tells her that he actually like the second novel better. If this is a case of a director who’s making his second film ensuring that he gives himself a pat on the back even if no else does, you have to applaud the cheek.
* Vaayai Moodi Pesavum = Shut your mouth and speak
* a terrific ear for light humour = see here
* Switzerland-oda chitti ponnu = Switzerland’s niece
* Mani Ratnam would have done in the 1980s = see here
* YouTube mashup with Sundaralingam = see here
* the score in Barfi! = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.