A glance at the title of Cheran’s new film, JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai, is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. That word: nanban. Friendship has been reduced to such a boisterous, backslapping cliché in our cinema that we sigh and brace ourselves for a ceaseless stream of wisecracks from Santhanam. That we get – but, for a change, we also see men and women hanging out casually, the way guys and girls do outside of Tamil cinema, their gender reduced to a harmless afterthought. And for the most part, these “friends” aren’t wastrels, gathering over drinks to sing boozy numbers. They are young, ambitious, creative, driven, hardworking.
And then we see they weren’t always this way. JK (Sharwanand, who seems to have renamed himself Sarva) used to live life in the fast lane. Literally. The camera keeps zooming in on the speedometer of his bike, and a graphic is used to single out the alarming numbers. When we first see him, he has little patience for those whose existence has slowed to a crawl, people like his father, who asks him to deposit the rent cheque. JK refuses. Why should he waste his precious time doing this when his unemployed father is perfectly capable of taking care of the matter? The minute these words pop out of JK, the hardened moviegoer will predict the next shot. Sure enough, we see the crestfallen father, trying not to notice the offensively maudlin music playing in the background. Classic Cheran, you think – but you’re proven wrong.
JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai feels like Cheran’s attempt to show that he isn’t, anymore, the sentimental, melodramatic filmmaker whose good intentions haven’t always resulted in good movies (or good box-office collections). He’s trying to show us that he can be young, hip. There’s a song about JK hanging out on Facebook; the lyrics include the words “LOL,” “XOXO,” and “Zuckerberg.” Another song opens with the lyric “Get ready for my mojo.” A third number is set in Goa, which used to be movie shorthand for Sin City before air tickets got cheap and pleasure seekers started flying out to Thailand instead. Even the song that plays over the opening credits tries to be all kinds of cool, asking us “Who is JK?” and “What is JK?” and whether he’s a politician, a scientist, or a musician.
This alerts us to the multiple hats JK wears, with apparent effortlessness. He pretends to be a journalist and asks a top real-estate developer a few questions. Then he pretends to be a CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) official. He goes to an apartment complex and finds out what the residents’ complaints are. He uses all this information and decides to become a real-estate developer himself. In, like, a few scenes. But before that, when JK is at a bank manager’s home to ask for a loan, he notices that the house isn’t well-maintained. So he takes it upon himself to do a spot of interior designing, which leads the manager to exclaim that that’s his calling. And somewhere in between, JK decides to take a shot at being an upscale florist. Most films would make us root for JK by making these ventures the equivalent of an arduous Everest climb. Here, Cheran designs an elevator to the summit. Whoosh. It’s that easy.
And these aren’t mom-and-pop operations. The scale is huge, and JK gets his friends to help him – they become, in effect, his partners. One of them is played by Santhanam, who invests so much energy into making the unfunniest jokes that you wonder what his actual contribution to the concern is. We wouldn’t be asking this if the film weren’t a serious, sincere attempt to be about something. Had this been just another mass-hero masala movie, we might have even accepted Santhanam as the CEO, the… Chief Entertainment Officer. (Hey, why should he be the only one making bad jokes?) Nithya Menen plays another friend. The film, to its credit, doesn’t make her anything more. Manobala is in there too. JK sees him making one of those amazing portraits on the road and decides he’ll be a valuable add to the company. Just like that. A serious amount of Kool-Aid is being drunk in these premises. But at least, it’s a chance to see Manobala in a role that offers him a semblance of dignity.
JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai may have worked if Cheran had stuck to his style. JK is in one of those quandaries where he has to support his parents, a younger brother who needs to be put through medical school, two younger sisters who need to be married off (one of the suitors asks for, and receives, a big dowry; a truly young, hip film would have given this smug jerk a kick in the rear). Then there’s a character with cardiac asthma, needing a heart transplant. There’s another character whose father is a struggling farmer in Usilampatti. There’s a fatal road accident. And there’s a character whose doctor gives him really bad news. Can you make a light, breezy film from material with enough melodrama to give A Bhimsingh pause? Maybe that’s why we don’t feel anything or care for anyone. Without the barriers, it isn’t a hurdling event anymore. It’s just a sprint.
Still, it’s impossible not to feel for Cheran. Friday after Friday, the cinema halls are filled with dreck, and we wonder how these films got made in the first place, and, subsequently, got a distributor excited enough to pave the way for a release. There’s something very tragic when JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai has to settle for a straight-to-DVD release, after spending months without finding a buyer. (The Censor certificate is dated 04/12/2013.) The point isn’t that a grand masterpiece hasn’t made its way to screens near us. The point is that when so many downright bad movies are out there, an established, well-regarded director has had to resort to practically giving his film away for free. The point is that Inga Enna Solludhu found a buyer and JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai didn’t. That’s more gut-wrenching than anything Cheran has dreamt up in his career.
- JK Enum Nanbanin Vaazhkai = the life of a friend named JK
- nanban = friend
- A Bhimsingh = see here
- Inga Enna Solludhu = see here
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