There are films that cater to the actor, and there are films that cater to the star – in Velayilla Pattathari, Dhanush gets a film where he gets to showcase both sides. In the first half, we see Dhanush as we know him from Selvaraghavan’s early films, a loser named Raghuvaran who just can’t catch a break. But he’s no aimless lowlife. He’s a civil engineer who wants to put his education to use – in other words, he won’t settle for an easy, lucrative BPO job. He shares his life with a father (Samuthirakani) who taunts him constantly, a mother (Saranya) who keeps defending him, and a younger brother (Hrishikesh) who is lighter-skinned, gainfully employed, English-speaking, more wimpy, and, in general, checks off all the “second hero” boxes of a Selvaraghavan movie. The family lives in a cramped home, and the detailing is perfect. The floor doubles as the dining table, a bed doubles as an ironing board, a mirror doubles as a sticker-pottu holder. And the girl next door (Shalini, played by Amala Paul, who’s simply required to look pretty, and does) – richer, fairer – doubles as the love interest.
But Raghuvaran doesn’t obsess over her. He doesn’t want to get into her churidars. There’s hardly a romantic track to speak of – and certainly no silly duets. She keeps trying to kiss him on the mouth, and he keeps resisting (yeah, right!) – though, at first, he does behave like a Selvarghavan hero. He fashions a telescope and ogles at her. (Later, in an unexpectedly touching moment, the gesture is reciprocated.) But he doesn’t get too creepy. There’s a very funny scene where he’s listening to a Tamil gaana song and humming along, and when he catches her staring he switches to a Backstreet Boys number. That’s the general tone of this romance. Along with these rich-girl-poor-boy scenes, we get the sarakku scene (and the accompanying song-and-dance), the fight scene, the amma-sentiment scenes – but these clichés don’t feel like clichés. The director displays a sure hand. You can see that he wants to make a “safe” movie, but he goes about it in as organic a manner as circumstances permit. The lines are snappy (but not showy), the scene segues are fluid. And despite the shadow of Selvarghavan, the film – at least, the first half – isn’t disturbing. It doesn’t gnaw at your insides the way a Selvaraghavan romance does. There are no serrated edges, nothing that signals a director emptying his troubled soul on screen. It’s just… smoothly entertaining. For a while, Velayilla Pattathari plays like a Selvaraghavan movie you can take your mother (and her mother) to.
There’s just one artificial – or cinematic – scene in the first half, involving a sum of money that Raghuvaran intends to use for something else, but even this is redeemed by his reaction, the headiness that he, for a change, happened to be the one holding up the umbrella when it rained. The first real shock comes at interval point – the dramatic development is too heavy a contrivance given how easygoing things have been till then. And Velayilla Pattathari changes tracks, becoming a more overtly commercial proposition. Earlier, the comedy was situational – Raghuvaran begging his rickety moped to cooperate (of course, he drives a rickety moped), or laughing loud when Shalini asks him if he is free the next day. But now, we get a separate comedy track, with Vivek (who gets some funny lines). Suddenly, there’s some sort of second heroine, a villain (a bland Amitesh, bearing the inevitably Brahminical name of Arun Subramaniam). A textured narrative turns unrelentingly black-and-white.
And the actor turns star. It was always Raghuvaran’s story, but earlier, he was one character among many. We saw him the way his mother saw him, and other times, we saw him as his father did. And we saw them too, as they were – the simple woman who describes Titanic in the most reductionist manner, and the exasperated man who wavers between love for his son and anger, regretting a slap, and, the next moment, wishing that a couple of extra blows had been dealt. (Saranya and Samuthirakani settle into their parts beautifully; not a single moment is overplayed.) But now, it’s just Raghuvaran’s movie, with no room for anyone else. Earlier, he watched mega-serials and helped Shalini’s mother with the dishes, and even the fight in the first half had comic overtones – with a standout visual gag where a garden hose faces off with a knife. But now, he becomes one-dimensionally macho, with a six pack and a shirtless scene to go with it. The fights degenerate into those dreary affairs where a number of thugs buy a ticket and wait in line till it’s their turn to be pulped by the hero. Now, the clichés really begin to feel like clichés, all the way to the predictable end.
But Dhanush acts his heart out, and I just couldn’t look away. He aces the small moments in the first half – like the one where Raghuvaran tells Shalini he isn’t jealous of his brother who’s just bought a car. He pauses a beat, just a beat, and then admits that he is jealous, just a little. And he’s terrific in the scene where he finally gives in to accumulated sorrow, letting the tears flow – the stretch is all the more remarkable because we don’t actually see the breakdown, which happens off-screen. As for his long, show-stopping monologue, delivered in an unbroken close-up, I’ll have to watch the film again to have an opinion on it – the audience around me depleted their lungs by whistling non-stop. This, then, is Velraj’s achievement. He’s given actor-Dhanush fans half a movie to love, and he’s handed over the rest to fans of star-Dhanush. Is there much use complaining when both actor and star are in such fine form?
* Velaiyilla Pattathari = A graduate without a job
* “second hero” = see here
* sticker-pottu = see here
* amma-sentiment scene = see here
* sarakku = booze
* serrated edges = see here
* Vivek = see here
* fight = see here
* actor-Dhanush + star-Dhanush = see here
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