In Naan Than Bala, Vivek plays the eponymous character, a priest who lives in an agraharam in Kumbakonam. He refuses to move elsewhere as his aged parents live with him. When a priest in the US invites him over – the donations are in dollars – Bala refuses. He says that our parents took care of us when we were children, and now, when they are like children, we must take care of them. He isn’t averse to a glass of water from the house of a lower-caste acquaintance. We’re all god’s people, he says, as the film cuts to an Ambedkar picture on the wall. And in Kanchipuram, we meet his future love interest, Vaishali (Swetha), whose orthodox father says he doesn’t mind her working because men and women are equal, and only by hard work can one understand the value of money. Staple these scenes together and you have a Moral Science textbook for the Fifth Standard. The filmmaking is all broad strokes. Subtlety is as hard to find in these environs as mutton cutlet.
But slowly, something strange happens. Bala is labeled by one character as a mahaan, by another as thayir saadham. He is all this and more – self-righteous, painfully principled, and ridiculously learned, capable of whipping out a line of scripture for every occasion. But he’s also a good friend to Poochi (Venkatraj), a killer, and he speaks a casual mixture of Tamil and English – he’s not one of those caricatures we see in the movies, whose every utterance is deep-fried in Brahminical dialect. And when it’s time to make a forceful point – for instance, when he’s cornered by Vaishali and her family and issued an ultimatum – he makes it silently. (I expected him to preach.) It’s a testament to Vivek’s sincerity and how this part is written that we come to care about this man who’s an anachronism in most ways.
The film itself is something of an anachronism. It’s a morality play that harks back to our myths – to people like Karna who stood by a friend even though he knew the man was pure evil. If a man who does bad things shows you only his good side, then does he become a good man? This question – along with those about nyaya, dharma – comes up as Bala befriends Poochi, and this befriending itself is presented like an act of God. Bala needs funds to save his father, but no one in his community will help him. So he goes to the temple and beseeches God for help. Poochi, who happens to be there, gives him the money. And then we realize that the name isn’t accidental. God works in mysterious ways, sometimes through an… insect.
This insect, meanwhile, is about to be exterminated by members of the family of one of his targets. And he faces a different dilemma, centered on his lord and master, who adopted him when he was ten and treats him like a son. What does he owe this man, who, instead, of giving him a book, taught him how to wield a knife? (As this man’s ambitious, money-grubbing wife, Sujatha is excellent. Lady Macbeth would want to friend her on Facebook.) And will Poochi’s friendship with Bala, who’s his opposite in every imaginable way, change him?
With all this, Naan Than Bala should have been shattering drama. That it isn’t is a function of the usual problems of our cinema – sketchy performances in the supporting parts, flavourless romance (though it’s a nice touch that Vaishali’s family is Saurashtrian), comedy that constantly undermines the film’s seriousness, lazy contrivances (like how Poochi is so conveniently found by his enemies), mood-killing songs (even if they are unusual numbers, one about food and one about jewels) and an over-the-top ending. The bigger issue is that we don’t quite see how someone like Poochi would welcome someone like Bala into his life. His donation of money at the temple was an impulsive act, but surely a calculating killer cannot wear his heart on his sleeve all the time. Still, you must hand it to the director Kannan for going where Tamil cinema rarely goes. In a culture where the hero is God, he’s gone and made a movie with a man of God as the hero.
* Naan Thaan Bala = I am Bala
* agraharam = see here
* Ambedkar = see here
* mutton cutlet = see here
* mahaan = great man
* thayir saadham = curd rice; derogatory term for an exceedingly conservative person
* Brahminical dialect = see here
* poochi = insect
* nyaya, dharma = see here, here
* hero is God = see here
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