It’s an unusual introduction for a movie with a big-ticket hero. For one, the hero gets no big-ticket introduction – not in the get-the-fans-screaming sense, considering the whistle-ready title, Thangamagan. Thamizh (Dhanush) and his friend Kumaran (Sathish) ride up to a house. Beside them, in an auto-rickshaw, are Thamizh’s mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar) and wife Yamuna (Samantha). Oh, it’s raining, which, in the movies, means one of two things: romance, or trouble. Here, it’s the latter. Thamizh is moving to a new house, and the house suggests he’s moving down in life. He’s lost his job. We don’t get the scene where he loses his job – at least, not yet. We just get the information. And Yamuna is pregnant. Again, we don’t get the scene where they discover she’s pregnant – at least, not yet. We just get the information. For most Tamil filmmakers, screenwriting is pre-emptive exposition. They say: A for… Apple. For Velraj, screenwriting is: A for… Action. A for… Anticipation. A for… And you can bloody well wait to know what happened.
I don’t want to over-praise Velraj, exactly, for his work thus far has been decidedly derivative. Thangamagan is a reworking of Velraj’s earlier (and first) film Velaiyilla Pattathari, which was a reworking of the prototypical Selvaraghavan story about a low-key loser. 7G Rainbow Colony is referenced here – in a theatre screening, in a poster. It’s referenced in the cramped living quarters where parents stuff their ears with cotton so they don’t end up listening to their son in the next room having sex with his new bride. I’d have said “making love,” but that suggests mood lighting and scented candles. Given the Selvaraghavan ethos, “having sex” seems more appropriate – it suggests sweat and humping. Then there’s the girl who points to the hickey on her neck, the fair-complexioned second hero (Adith Arun, playing Thamizh’s cousin Aravind), the fairer-complexioned out-of-one’s-league heroine (Amy Jackson’s Hema) who first snubs the hero and later finds him irresistible. Falling-in-love, in these films, is like acquiring a taste for beer. The first sip, you throw up. Keep persevering, and you’re soon calling your NRI pals: “Machi, get me some Heineken from duty-free, da.”
But within this small circle he’s drawn around himself, Velraj locates interesting tangents. He writes characters deftly, defining them with a sharp scene or line. Take Thamizh’s father (K S Ravikumar, who, apparently, is a much better actor than director). In his first scene, he dispenses advice about porn and beer. Or take Thamizh’s mother, who emotionally blackmails her son into a temple visit. These are situations from the world around us, so why don’t we see them more in the movies? One of the signs a film is working for you is how much you catch yourself smiling. I smiled a lot – in the wedding-night scene, for instance, between Thamizh and Yamuna, where she asks him why he wanted a wife and he unleashes a story that begins with a dead brother. It’s a brilliant bit of writing, as is the much-later scene where Hema (who has now split up with Thamizh) comes to stay with Thamizh and Yamuna. A man, his wife, his ex – it’s a recipe for fifty shades of awkward. But Velraj cooks up a sweet love scene. He even manages to subvert the TASMAC moment. We don’t see the drinking. We only get the aftermath, with Thamizh explaining why he needed that drink.
Even the heroines are written interestingly – I say “even,” because many films would consider their work done just by giving the hero a woman on each arm. Hema tells Thamizh that she wants a nuclear family, and we know, at once, that a break-up is imminent – the umbilical cord, after all, is to the Tamil-film hero (especially one named Thamizh) what the lasso is to John Wayne. But the film doesn’t judge Hema. She gets her say in a spirited scene where she tells Thamizh that the reason they broke up isn’t their disagreement about the parents situation, it’s that he reacted the way he did, not even bothering to hear her out. Not only does this scene make it clear that Hema isn’t the woman for Thamizh, it also hints that he’d be better off with someone like Yamuna – he’s that kind of guy. He’d prefer someone docile, without opinions, someone who’d wait by the door, worried, that he’s not home yet. I couldn’t decide whether this was an affectionate acknowledgement of a particular “type” of Indian guy – who wants Westernised looks, but not Westernised thoughts – or a kick in the balls to his kind. Yamuna, too, gets nice shades. She may be a conventional character, but her scenes aren’t always conventional. That wedding-night scene again. She says she’s hungry – but it’s not the kind of hunger that has the heroine biting her lower lip. She’s actually hungry, and she watches as Thamizh whips up an omelette.
It’s such a pity, then, that Dhanush is a big star in addition to being a damn fine actor. I don’t grudge him his stardom, but I hate it that it means the sweet, modest, eighties-style melodrama from the early scenes has to transform into a modern-day hero-worship saga, with punch lines and fights accompanied by growling electric guitars. It’s like watching Van Halen play in Vaniyambadi. Suddenly, we’re in the kind of movie where the villain is downing a dozen drinks (he wasn’t shown having so much as a beer earlier) and saying things like, “Naan jeyikka porandhavan da, nee en kitta thoakka porandhavan.” The writing, too, becomes uninspired. In a scene I couldn’t believe (given how well-written the earlier portions are), the location of a bag filled with cash is divulged, accidently, by two children who say something like, “Appa has asked us not to go into this room.” Why not just hang a sign outside the door saying “The money is inside”? But it helps that, unlike Velaiyilla Pattathari, this isn’t an us-versus-them thing. It isn’t about class differences. It isn’t a rah-rah rise over oppression. It’s still very much in the Visu-movie zone – except, maybe, you’d have to imagine the Dilip character with a Kalashnikov.
Despite the second half, I must say I am interested in whatever Velraj does next. It isn’t every day that you get an A-B-C-centre movie with so many little things you take away. The fact that Thamizh and Hema move on so practically, so matter-of-factly. The sweetly worded bit of advice from Yamuna that Thamizh should learn to enjoy the “suthi irukkara chinna chinna sandhosham.” The superb scene where Yamuna says she’s pregnant and Thamizh finds himself unable to be happy. There’s even a great comedy track, courtesy Amy Jackson. Imagine this creature from a French fashion magazine in this kind of earthy, lower-middle-class neighbourhood, saying things like naai and panni, wearing mallipoo and a thaali and participating in a valaikappu, and bursting into – you’d better be sitting down for this – Thamizhukku amudhendru paer. It’s like watching Adele in Andipatti.
- Velaiyilla Pattathari = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.