So we wait for the hero-introduction scene. Maybe he’ll smash through a wall and land a punch on a villain who is extorting money from slum-folk. Maybe he’ll ride in on a bike, in slo-mo, the scene lasting long enough for fans to expend all the wind in their lungs through wolf-whistles. But no. When we first meet Joseph Kuruvilla (Vijay) in Theri, directed by Atlee, he’s bent behind his bike, fixing it. Beside him, his daughter Nivi (Nainika, a cute kid who’s asked to overplay the cuteness; your opinion on her performance may depend on how many spoons of sugar you take with your tea) stamps her foot impatiently. Then, a car speeds past a puddle nearby, and the water splashes on her. This is it, we think. Joseph Kuruvilla’s face will appear. He’ll give chase. He’ll break the driver’s bones. Or at least leave an impression of his fingerprints on the driver’s cheek. We get the face. We get the chase. And we get a tame finish, with the driver being asked to apologise. What the…
Instantly, we know the story. Any film in which a mass hero is a mouse in the early reels will feature a flashback in which we see him as a tiger, and then a second flashback in which we see why this tiger transformed into a mouse. Atlee’s screenplay checks all the boxes, and we’re checking these boxes ten minutes ahead of him. But that’s not the problem. We don’t go to these movies expecting finely etched narrative arcs and convincing characters. Though, ideally, we should. (And there have been masala movies that are more than just a loose collection of fan-appeasing moments.) We should find it funny that, after a boisterous song in which the heroine sings oosi vedi naandhaan oodhuvathi needhan, we are abruptly ushered into a super-heavy scene where a father wails about his missing daughter. Or take the stretch where Annie (Amy Jackson) discovers that Joseph was lying when he said he couldn’t speak Malayalam. (The early parts of Theri are set in Kerala.) We should protest at the repeat of the shot where Joseph told her he could speak the language. We should be offended at being taken for such idiots that we cannot recall a plot point that played out five minutes ago.
But we let all of this pass because what we look for are the mass moments, the moments that creep past the logic centres in the brain and affect us almost atavistically. Like the one in which several goons are taught a lesson in a third-standard classroom. Like the bit with Vijay dancing to a Dhanush song. Like the interval moment at the bridge. Like the moment where a just-orphaned kid takes a Five Star bar out of his pocket. And I’m sure the legions of Atlee’s young fans, the ones who fell hard for his earlier film Raja Rani, are going to make screensavers of this line: Love solla vekka padaravan vaazhave vekka padaravan. But there aren’t enough of these moments for such a long, predictable movie that keeps reminding you of Chatriyan and Baasha and Ramana and a hundred other tiger-turned-mouse-turned-tiger sagas.
Even the questions that run through our heads are predictable. With all the money at their disposal, why aren’t the action scenes better? How long are we going to keep countering dishoom with dishoom? Where are the nail-biting thrills in the stretch where a school bus filled with kids veers off into a river? Why are GV Prakash’s songs so unmemorable, and when are they going to find a choreographer who can really do justice to Vijay’s extraordinary dancing abilities? The casting of the great director Mahendran as the antagonist sounds great in theory, but why is the character so ineffective? What are the Censor’s Board’s criteria for awarding a U certificate? This film has a line where a forensic examiner speaks of rapists eradicating traces of semen by violating the victim with a rusty iron rod. There’s a scene where a gun hovers over an infant’s head. Men are found with their genitals lopped off? Which part of all this screams “this is a movie for the entire family”? At least the question of why there isn’t much comedy finds an easy answer. Once you cast Amy Jackson as a schoolteacher in a small town in Kerala, the laughs come automatically. At one point, she asks Joseph, “Malayalam theriyadha?” Lady, you can barely get by in Tamil, and now we have to buy you as a specialist in the southern languages?
Vijay works best in the light-comic zone of a Thuppaki or a Puli, and he totally sells the scene where he charms the family of the girl he loves (Samantha). But Atlee keeps nudging the actor into heavy-duty dramatic zones, with an eye on the section of the audience we like to call thaaikulam. (If P Vasu made an action movie, it’d feel like Theri.) The hero sheds tears of sorrow for the rape victim. He sheds tears of joy when his little girl is born. He loves loves loves his mother (Radhika, in one of the most grab-the-cheque-and-run roles of her career). I’m not saying you cannot find a place for these sentiments in a mass-hero movie, but the film ends up schizophrenic trying to balance them with the more macho stuff the actor’s fans want. So after all those tears, we end up with the hero as the ghost who walks, a phantom who appears out of nowhere to dole out justice. Someone like Netaji, we’re told, whose death remains unverified and who could be doing the kind of villain-dispatching the hero does here. In Kollywood, it’s just a little leap from INA to WTF.
- Theri = Vijay-ness
- oosi vedi naandhaan oodhuvathi needhan = I am a bomb, you are my lighter
- Raja Rani = see here
- Love solla vekka padaravan vaazhave vekka padaravan = If you’re ashamed to declare your love, you’re ashamed to live.
- “Malayalam theriyadha?” = Don’t you speak Malayalam?
- Thuppaki = see here
- Puli = see here
- thaaikulam = the womenfolk in the audience
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