“Isai”… Lots of problems, but the preposterous plot pulls you through

Posted on January 30, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

SJ Surya’s Isai begins with a curious disclaimer, that what we’re about to see is fiction. Wait. Isn’t that obvious? After all, this isn’t a biopic. But slowly, we begin to see why this bit of bordering-on-legalese was necessary. The film tells the story of a famous film-music composer named “Isai Vendhan” Vetrichelvan (Sathyaraj, having fun hamming it up in his trademark style). In his heyday, his music alone guaranteed 25-week runs for films. His notation book has his image on every page. He has a reputation for hubris — in a scene that plays wickedly to the gallery, he literally spits out a tune. Remind you of anyone? And he is pitted against a composer named AK Shiva (those initials… again, remind you of someone?), who’s called “Isai Kadal” (wink, nudge) and who was once part of Vetrichelvan’s orchestra. Shiva composes on the keyboard, in contrast to Vetrichelvan, whose music is created live. And get this. Shiva’s debut as an independent music director was in a film directed by… I forget the screen name now, but the character is played by Azhagam Perumal, who formerly assisted… Mani Ratnam. Phew. Without that disclaimer, Surya would have been toast.

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So we sit back and await the story – the fictional story — of, as a voiceover puts it, “what jealousy can do to a genius.” But instead, a large swath of the first half covers an excruciating romantic track between Shiva and Jennifer (Sulagna Panigrahi). This being an SJ Surya movie, you brace yourself for the inevitable carnality (if you want to be kind) or sleaze (if you don’t) — the director doesn’t disappoint. Sulagna brings to mind the heroines of a certain era who were chosen not because they had beautiful eyes or a bewitching smile but because of the quiver-quotient of their navel when confronted by a close-up. In one of the couple’s early scenes, Shiva wraps his hand around Jennifer’s waist and wiggles his fingers as if playing the keyboard. In response, she closes her eyes and reaches the higher octaves, if you catch my drift. Then he commands her to place her hand on her chest and asks, “Ulla enna irukku?” When she flounders for an answer, he supplies one: “Idhayam.” If you insist. And if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love the plot point in which he’s bitten by a snake in a forest and she stumbles into him (she’s a local) and begins to administer medicine by straddling his legs and pouring the potion into his mouth. To counter the bitter taste, she soaks her fingers in honey and he sucks on them and… You don’t have to look any further if you wondered what it’d be like if a horny, hyper-imaginative teenage boy wrote a Penthouse letter.

Luckily, around interval point, the story veers back to the central conflict. Shiva begins seeing things and thinks he’s going mad — and you know Vetrichelvan has a hand in this. The hows and the whys would have been far more interesting had the film been shorter (it runs over three hours). We get long scenes with lots of redundant dialogue, all intended to showcase Surya’s prowess as a performer. (Let’s just say Kamal Haasan needn’t lose any sleep.) The characters, the contrivances needed more work. A scene in which Shiva confides in Vetrichelvan is most unconvincing. And they seem to be the only music directors around. For a film set against the backdrop of a vibrantly active industry, the staging is oddly insular. (And a film about musicians could have used better music.) And yet, I found Isai a better watch than the recent big-ticket movies we’ve been subjected to. It has to do with the plot, which gradually becomes so preposterous that the sheer whatever-next factor pulls you through. After a point, the film lurches madly between psycho-thriller, Victorian melodrama (think Gaslight), horror-movie staples, and — I kid you not — a meta musing on the director’s long absence from the screen and his return to it. Whatever else, you have to hand him points for audacity. By the end, I was chuckling.


  • Vendhan = king = Raja
  • Sathyaraj style = see here
  • Kadal = sea = name of the film, a notorious bomb whose music was composed by… er, you know…
  • navel, quiver-quotient = see here (don’t miss the one with the coconut)
  • Ulla enna irukku? = what’s inside?
  • Idhayam = heart
  • Gaslight = see here

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil