With last year’s Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer, the director Suseenthiran took a major step forward, towards the smallish pantheon we have, but with Jeeva, it’s two steps back. The film narrates the story of the eponymous cricketer (Vishnu Vishal), and it begins well enough, with a flashback of kids in a playground. Can anyone resist these scenes? They take us back to days we want to relive in our minds, over and over, and yet not necessarily live through again. I thought I caught a glimpse of myself in the chubby kid that no team wanted. The horror, the horror. But Jeeva has no such problems. He’s a natural. (Perhaps too much so. Throughout the film, he keeps hitting fours and sixes. He doesn’t seem to have had a bad batting day, like, ever.) His father (Marimuthu), however, doesn’t care for cricket, which he labels “panakkaaranga vilayaattu,” a rich man’s game. His employment at the EB isn’t going to pay for all the fancy equipment his son needs. He orders Jeeva to stop playing. It’s the end of the world.
Only, it isn’t. Jeeva isn’t affected all that much because he has Jenny (Sri Divya), the girl next door who – in an amusing reversal of the young-love comedy trope – first called him anna and has now fallen for him. Where a lesser filmmaker would milk Jeeva’s separation from his passion for audience-baiting drama, Suseenthiran understands that life goes on – and these early falling-in-love scenes (one of them involving a groin guard) are lovely. There’s nothing new, exactly. Their love is furtive, they’re found out, the parents scream, her father packs her off to live with a faraway uncle… But the leads work well together and Suseenthiran – as he demonstrated in Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer – is good at deflating clichés with a fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style, with found moments and unfussy cinematography and an editing rhythm that snatches us away from scenes at just the right instant. We are never allowed to linger. It’s commercial-cinema verité.
The world around Jeeva is detailed with quick brushstrokes. We meet the Maths teacher who looks at him as just another candidate for tuitions. We meet Preeti, who declares her love to Jeeva (who knows that his best friend Ranjith is in love with her), and just as we fear a full-blown love triangle, the mess is resolved with breathtaking directness. (At that moment, I realised that half our plots wouldn’t exist if the characters simply talked things out.) Things happen slowly, organically, through characters we have come to know and understand. If Jenny is instrumental in Jeeva getting back to cricket, then Preeti is responsible for Jeeva finding his way back to Jenny. And Jeeva’s long-departed mother is the one who makes Jenny interested in Jeeva. Even the dead people in this film end up doing something that justifies their… well, existence in the scheme of things.
I liked being around these people, even if nothing they did came as a surprise. I liked Preeti for moving on, for not shedding a single tear after being rejected by Jeeva. I liked her even more when she chose to remain friends with him. I liked Ranjith when, after hearing that Jeeva’s been approached by a cricket club more prestigious than the one they play for, he advises Jeeva to not become sentimental and to consider the offer seriously. I liked Jeeva’s easy relationship with his neighbour’s (Charlie) family, and the way Jeeva’s father deals with this neighbour whom Jeeva addresses as appa. Suseenthiran has it both ways. He gets to keep the “father sentiment,” the “friend sentiment” and so forth, and yet, at least for a while, these don’t feel like tired tropes – they feel fresh. He even manages to put a spin on the old unity-in-diversity trope, something that our mainstream movies rarely have much use for anymore. Jeeva’s girlfriend is Christian, as is his second appa. And the local sports shop owner and the cricket-team captain who recognises Jeeva’s talent are Muslim. None of this is fodder for drama. It just is.
Around interval point, we get one of those staged-for-effect scenes with a garden and bright blooms and the whiff of impending romance. The shot comes as a shock because the film, this far, has looked utterly real. The only exceptions are the songs (by D Imman, whose Oru rosa makes good use of trumpets) and the odd scene like the one where Jeeva and Jenny meet after they’ve been told not to – the element of secrecy is enhanced by their silhouettes, though I was distracted by a tree behind them that was lit a tad too prettily. But this shot, now, is all out of proportion in this small story – it’s out of a Shankar movie. (There’s a fountain.) The film, taking a cue, switches tracks and never recovers. The emotions become overblown as well. We get a mood-killing I’ll-stalk-you-till-you-say-you-love-me song, with ballerinas in the background. We get Soori, whose ultra-broad comedy belongs not just in another movie but a different universe. And everything that was subtle gets hammily melodramatic. Jeeva’s father has never seen his son play, and the day he chooses to watch a match is the day Jeeva is on the bench, called only to take drinks to the team. That sort of thing. Jenny’s father wants Jeeva to convert to Christianity. It’s a terrific idea to talk about the domination of Tam-Brahms in Tamil Nadu cricket, but these men are dreadful caricatures, and their scenes are painfully obvious. We begin to wonder if Suseenthiran is bipolar. How could the filmmaker from the earlier portions stoop to this? Worst is the scene around a funeral pyre where we’re asked to take in not just the grains of rice strewn around the lips but the last cake of dung that covers the face. From found moments we end up with moments we never want to find again.
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