Before we begin to discuss Yennai Arindhaal as a Gautham Vasudev Menon film, we need to discuss it as an Ajith film – because he’s the elephant and you can’t get a proper look at the rest of the room without regarding him first. On the surface, this is very much a mass-hero movie, with Ajith playing a cop named Sathyadev. The opening-credits sequence is filled with macho imagery – a knife, sticks of dynamite, a gun, bullets, one of those stars that cops pin onto their uniforms. But there are no action sequences where villains are sent flying into the air, and the fights don’t slow down for masturbatory slo-mo frames. There’s a comedian in Vivek. But he’s kept in check. He makes an audience-rousing crack about Ajith’s salt-and-pepper look, but he isn’t given a separate comedy track. There are two heroines – software engineer Thenmozhi (Anushka), and a dancer named Hemanika (Trisha; the character seems to have been styled after Shobana, especially when she’s called “naatiya peroli,” which is what Shobana’s aunt Padmini was called). But there are no duets, and one of the meet-cutes involves vomit while the other one features a woman in labour. Both these heroines speak fluent English. But the hero does too, and he isn’t apologetic about it. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care much about the kind of things that our filmmakers think audiences in the B- and C-centres care about. When we first see Sathyadev, he’s flying Business Class.
You could point to Menon’s earlier cop films – Kaakha Kaakha and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu – and say that those heroes did some of these things too. But Suriya was just starting out when he did Kaakha Kaakha. The “mass” image he has today, that wasn’t there then. He was just an actor. As for Kamal Haasan, well, he can get away with playing the tray in the hands of the stewardess in Business Class. We expect him to be different. But for Ajith, at this stage of his career, with his kind of following, to play Sathyadev this way – it’s a surprise. An exceedingly pleasant one. It’s a surprise that he’s made a movie where his virility is on display in his professional life but not in his personal life. I’m talking about the plot point that extends – rather, extrapolates on – the one in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu that had the hero, Raghavan, fall for a woman with a young daughter from a bad marriage. (The track in Yennai Arindhaal is a what-if riff, as in: What if the Jothika character died and left Raghavan to raise her daughter?) Like the Jothika character in that film, Hemanika worries if this man who wants to be her husband will also be a father to her daughter. But unlike Raghavan, Sathyadev promises that there won’t be any more children, even if means frequent trips to the medical shop. This is a joke about sex, and it’s tossed off so casually, I missed it when I first heard it – it took me a couple of seconds to realise what he was saying.
This is no small thing. Think back to Yejamaan, for instance – the entire film revolved around the Rajinikanth character’s ability to father a child. Or even consider Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu. We are told that Raghavan’s wife was pregnant when she died. But this isn’t just an intimation of tragedy. This is also an indication that this cop wasn’t shooting blanks. There’s nothing like that in Yennai Arindhaal. I’m not saying that these considerations automatically make a good movie. I’m just saying that, given this star at this stage of his stardom, Yennai Arindhaal is practically Elippathayam.
* * *
Now to the Gautham Vasudev Menon film. By now, you’re either a fan of this director or you aren’t, and Yennai Arindhaal doesn’t try to make you change your mind. If you love his Ilayaraja worship, you’ll love the line that references Thaalattuthey vaanam. And if you hate Menon’s style of shooting songs where, within the same song, some of the lyrics are lip-synced while the others play over mood moments, you’ll find more to hate here. But even non-fans will see that Menon has evolved into a superb filmmaker. It isn’t just that the cinematography is terrific, with soft colours and the kind of texture that we rarely see in our big-hero films, where the cinematographer is mistaken for some kind of landscape artist and we applaud at shots of mountains and sunsets and flowers. The cinematography in Yennai Arindhaal is the kind we find in the films of only the very top tier of Tamil filmmakers – I’m not talking about the directors who deliver hits; I’m talking about the filmmakers. The fluidity of the filmmaking here is something to see. Actually, we shouldn’t be making a big deal about this at all. This is something we should be taking for granted, and in Hollywood, this would be taken as granted. But in the context of commercial Tamil cinema, it needs to be singled out.
There’s so much that’s so good in Yennai Arindhaal that I kept wanting it to be a better movie. I wanted it to be shorter. I wanted it to be less generic, especially towards the latter portions. I wanted villains (Ashish Vidyarthi, Arun Vijay) that this hero deserved. Arun Vijay (who plays Victor) has terrific presence – he’s looks like a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body – and towards the end, he conveys, thrillingly, not just danger but also desperation, but this is a good performance in search of a good role, the kind of role that Jeevan played in Kaakha Kaakha. He looked unhinged. There was no telling what he’d do. When you get that feeling from a villain, you begin to fear for the hero’s life. I didn’t feel that fear here.
I wanted more to be done with the conceit that there’s a thin line between good and evil. It sounds grandly existential, but Sathyadev is so good and Victor so evil that the thin line is actually a chasm. I wanted to see more of Victor’s wife Lisa (Parvathy Nair). There are hints that she’s a fascinating character, and I wished a little more of the three-hour running time had been devoted to what she is, what she does. I wanted less déjà vu. I didn’t care to be reminded that the man-saving-a-friend’s-child angle here was something we’d seen in Vaaranam Aayiram. I wanted more surprise in the way Hemanika exits the story. The minute Sathyadev leaves her on the eve of their wedding, taking with him her daughter Isha, I knew she wouldn’t see the morning.
But I loved the way the aftermath of this tragedy is depicted, with Sathyadev breaking the news to Isha as she stares into the distance – only, he says Hemanika has “gone away.” We get the feeling that Isha knows he’s lying, that “gone away” is a euphemism for what’s really happened, but she just won’t admit it to herself… yet. And then we slip into one of the strangest, most satisfying passages ever in a star vehicle of this magnitude, the stretch that shows how a little girl grieves for her mother, comes to grip with this tragedy, and then, only then, begins to call pa the man she’s so far been calling Sathya. The word slips out in such a matter-of-fact manner, it made me tear up – there’s no epiphany, the background score doesn’t erupt into an orgasm, the moment just is, she just decides it’s time she called this man pa. And how exquisitely Sathyadev recedes into the background in these portions, knowing that Isha comes first, that for a while, his journey has to take a backseat to hers, even if it takes four years. (Unakkenna venum sollu, beautifully composed by Harris Jayaraj , plays over this portion.)
Anikha Surendran is wonderful as Isha. There’s a rawness in her that contrasts well with the hyper-sheen that coats the Gautham Menon heroine, who can come off, at times, as too perfect, too idealised. Look at the scenes where Thenmozhi comes to live with Sathyadev and Isha. There are no clichés, no weeping when Isha points out Hemanika’s picture to Thenmozhi, no drama about Isha fearing the arrival of a new “mother.” Sathyadev asks her, simply, if Thenmozhi can stay with them for a while. Isha smiles and says, “Of course, appa,” and the faintest bit of impatience in her voice tells us what she leaves unsaid. (“Do you even have to ask?”)
* * *
I suspect that the film Menon really wanted to make had to do with Isha and Sathyadev, and that the macho posturing of the cop-movie is what he needed in order to sell that film to this star’s audience. The soul of Yennai Arindhaal, if you will, is in the scenes between father and daughter. The fathers in Menon’s movies are supercalifragilistic creatures – kind and loving and supportive and full of great advice (they’re, in a way, as much idealised as the heroines are) – and here we see the tough cop’s natural progression into being that kind of father. In Kaakha Kaakha, the tough cop resisted relationships, and we saw him grow into a lover, a husband. In Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, the tough cop went a step further. In Kaakha Kaakha, the heroine had to convince the hero about embarking on a relationship; in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, it was the other way around. And as he entered this relationship, he found himself a father, though the fatherhood angle was never explored. That exploration occurs in Yennai Arindhaal, where the hero doesn’t need a great father-figure, as in Vaaranam Aayiram (though he does get one, briefly, in the form of Nasser) – the hero himself is that great father-figure.
And at least a part of the film is about how such a man would deal with these responsibilities. He tries to give up being an active cop and opts for a desk job, but he finds he just cannot do it. The fact that he’s back on active duty makes it great news for those who walked in for an Ajith movie, but the fact that he even tried to give it all up, for the sake of his daughter, is what makes this a Gautham Menon movie. Sathyadev’s father tells him that he needs to find himself – hence, “yennai arindhaal” – and this metaphorical journey is juxtaposed with a literal journey when Sathyadev and Isha take off, impulsively, on a long trip. Thereon, the film constantly stresses on what it takes for a cop to be a father. When Sathyadev finds his friend’s kidnapped child in six days, we hear his thoughts in a voiceover: “Aaru naal… aarey naal.” The former could be the anguished father speaking, that it took six days. The latter could be the supercop speaking, that it took just six days.
Yennai Arindhaal breaks new ground in its use of the voiceover (first-person narration, really), though this technique hasn’t been employed all that much in our cinema. We’ve heard it in Menon’s own films, of course – say, in Vaaranam Aayiram, where the son kept calling out to his dead father, remembering this, remembering that. But here, we hear all kinds of voiceovers, and they pull us into the world of the characters – we end up inside their heads. We get voiceovers from Thenmozhi, as she first runs into Sathyadev and drools over his appearance. (She slips into a sophisticated version of the super-figure-machi reverie that we usually get from the hero or his best friend.) We get voiceovers from Victor, when he bastardises the lyrics of the song Engalukkum kaalam varum into some kind of scummy philosophy. We get voiceovers from Sathyadev as a child, when he says this is the last time he’s seeing his father. (What a difference it makes when such a thing is conveyed to us through internal monologue rather than as part of a dialogue delivered to, say, Thenmozhi or Hemanika.) And from the adult Sathyadev we get voiceovers that speak about the nature of his profession (98 % of cops never take their guns out of the holster; he belongs to the other 2%), or hint at existential thoughts (looking at the pregnant Hemanika while on a dangerous mission, he muses about life and death), or reveal his emotions (he feels like a 17-year-old whenever he sees Hemanika). Sometimes, the dialogues segue into voiceovers, as in the scene that begins with Sathyadev at a hearing and goes on to show the workings of an organ-trafficking gang. (A nice pulpy touch, that.) At one point, Sathyadev even uses one of Thamarai’s lyrics for this film in a voiceover: Ulagenum paramapadham, vizhundha pin uyarvu varum…
* * *
Even if Yennai Arindhaal is somewhat disappointing as a Gautham Menon movie, it’s a first-rate Ajith movie. (The actor is in pretty decent form too. He still cannot pull off emotional scenes convincingly, but I totally bought his righteous explosion when someone tries to bribe him. It’s an honest man’s explosion.) The false notes are very few. I didn’t care for the director’s cameo as an intelligence officer. This sort of thing is distracting – we think, “Oh look, there’s Gautham Menon.” And I winced at a few lines, as when Sathyadev says, “Miga periya thappu.” That word, miga, just seemed wrong. I didn’t think Sathyadev would use it here. He’d say romba. But the film is entirely one of a piece – despite the familiarity of the Gautham Menon heroines or the Gautham Menon moments.
And these are still done very well. The cautious, formal nature of the initial sms-es between Hemanika and Sathyadev; the notion that you need to respect the person first if you’re to fall in love with them (a galaxy apart from all the love-at-first-sight scenarios); the little narrative sleights of hand, like the fact that we’re primed for Victor’s flashback when he mentions meeting Sathyadev in prison, but the actual meeting is shown in Sathyadev’s flashback; the song picturisations that continue to define the characters, as when we cut back and forth between Sathyadev beating up goons and Hemanika teaching her students dance; the long courtship between Sathyadev and Hemanika, with its implication that “people are talking”; or even the fact that Thenmozhi isn’t some random person who’s there just because a second heroine is needed, but that she ends up the heroine because of the part she plays in the plot – in another filmmaking culture, it may be possible to view all this dispassionately, from a distance, but in the context of commercial Tamil cinema orbiting around the gravitational pull of a giant star, it’s enough to leave you weak-kneed with gratitude.
* yennai arindhaal = if you/I know me…
* naatiya peroli = a title given to a great dancer
* songs where, within the same song, some of the lyrics are lip-synced = see here
* Engalukkum kaalam varum = see here
* Miga periya thappu = very big mistake
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.