What would Nerungi Vaa Muthamidaathe look like had it been a star vehicle, with a bigger budget? For one, the protagonist Chandru (Shabeer) would have been bumped up to hero – his journey from Trichy to Karaikal, driving a truck with stolen diesel, would have been the story. Maya (Pia Bajpai), who ends up in that truck after a bike accident, would have been the heroine. It isn’t a stretch to imagine her as an annoyingly chirpy child-woman, who wears down Chandru’s gruff reserve – and thereon, we might have had songs, fights, drama. The film could have even been something like Imtiaz Ali’s Highway. Chandru comes with a troubled past, as does Maya. They talk and discover they are kindred souls. And so forth.
The most interesting aspect of Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s second feature (her first was the impressive Aarohanam) is that we aren’t sure whose story it is – or even where the story is headed. At the beginning, a man surfaces from the depths of a river. There’s a hint of cops on his tail. Then we are introduced to a petrol/diesel crisis – the streets are deserted, planes are grounded. And we keep meeting people – a white-clad MLA named Kaali, a lead singer in a band (Viji Chandrashekar), a couple on the run, another couple who seem to be on the run. Who are they and what do they have to do with the plot? At one point, Chandru tells the character played by Thambi Ramaiah, “Enakku therinjathellaam unakku theriyaadhu, unakku therinjathellaam avangalukku theriyaadhu.” (You don’t know what I know, and they don’t know what you know.) This, we slowly realize, isn’t just a line – it’s the film’s philosophy. Ramakrishnan keeps us guessing, right till the end. Throughout the film, we keep piecing together the story, through small, tight flashbacks. (There’s very little flab.) The name of the Thambi Ramaiah character is revealed only after he has appeared a few times (and it’s a funny moment). The identity of the character played by Ambika becomes clear only after a few minutes. Even Chandru’s mission is revealed only near the end.
This sort of thing is possible only in films without stars, and made on low budgets. The big-time filmmaker asks, perhaps inevitably, “How do I make a movie that appeals to all audiences?” The small filmmaker is after something else. “How do I make a good movie?” It’s the Avis principle, applied to movie-making. When, in the 1960s, Avis found itself the No. 2 car-rental company in America, behind Hertz, they came up with a now-legendary slogan: “We try harder.” The idea was to convey to the customer that being the smaller company, they’d have to do more to be in business. That’s what filmmakers like Ramakrishnan do – they try harder. (And this year, we’ve been fortunate that a number of filmmakers have tried harder. Thanks to them, we’ve had Nedunchalai, Thegidi, Burma, Goli Soda, Mundaasupatti, Saivam, Vaayai Moodi Pesavum…) In fact, everyone tries harder. The music in these films is fresher. The cinematography more evocative. It’s amazing how much the quality of a film – of its various departments – can improve once the money ends up in the actual movie rather than in the pockets of its stars. This is the last film where you’d expect to see a well-done action sequence, but there it is – the classic one-man-versus-many scenario choreographed in a way that actually makes us believe that this one man can handle all those other men.
The problem with Nerungi Vaa Muthamidaathe is that all these characters, all these threads (hacking in a power plant!) don’t always cohere convincingly. There are times you wish there had been fewer people on screen, with meatier arcs. I wish Maya’s decision to go along with Chandru had been better established (her cutesy moment at the end is a disgrace). But it’s the sprawl that gives us the lovely non sequiturs – the mother of an infant who earns money by cleaning Chandru’s truck, or the “friend” who vanishes the moment he hears of the police and an FIR, or the man in the auto rickshaw who speaks to his brother-in-law over the phone as his wife holds on to… a goat. What the narrative loses in momentum (it could have used some tension, especially in the closing portions), it gains in texture. These aren’t isolated lives. They’re part of a larger universe, where people come and go, taking their stories with them as we turn our attention to other stories.
Or backstories, I know it’s not politically correct to keep referring to the work of “female” filmmakers – but I wonder if a male filmmaker would have handled a woman’s grisly past with such grace. That this woman, this middle-aged woman, is the lead singer of a pop/rock band is even better. She isn’t made to cower in a corner, bemoaning her fate. She wears stylish clothes and paints her long nails a bright pink. In a pop-culture world ruled by pouting nymphets, she probably knows she has to try harder.
* Nerungi Vaa Muthamidathe = Come close, but don’t touch
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