In Vetrivel, M Sasikumar is out to convince us, yet again, that he can do all the things a Tamil-film hero usually does. He’s a son-of-the-soil from Thanjavur, and he’s introduced in a song that dispenses Rajini-like aphorisms. (Yaarudhu vaanam… Pogudhu megam… Adha patta poda mudiyadhuda.) He gets duets, and he gets to dance – and I use the verb rather generously. (If there’s a campaign to stop Sasikumar from executing choreographed steps on screen, I’ll contribute handsomely.) He gets action scenes where no attacker can seemingly harm him. He even gets self-referential, with a nod to his big hit, Naadodigal. He proudly gets to proclaim that he isn’t educated – but that doesn’t stop a researcher in an agricultural institute (Mia George) from falling for him. It’s the great Tamil-film fantasy: to get a girl who’s fairer than you are, who’s more educated than you are, who comes from a more privileged background, who sms-es in English while you send text messages in Tamil.
But these massy must-haves apart, Sasikumar doesn’t play your average hero. Even with his limited set of expressions, he plays a… character, blending in with the film’s many characters. Hence the modest manner in which his name appears in the opening credits, after the names of the others: “Ivargaludan Sasikumar.” Vetrivel, written and directed by first-timer Vasanthamani, is the rare film with a big hero that also manages to make everyone else seem important. There’s the relationship between step-siblings, between brothers, between a father and his sons, a new bride and her in-laws… Some of these dimensions, inevitably, get more emphasis, but the end result is that of reading a story with a sprawling set of characters. Very little is really new, but the writing is solid, and the characters are fleshed out so well that even the smaller parts have well-rounded arcs. Sometimes, that’s enough.
At a time most filmmakers want to be flamboyant magicians, wowing us with high concepts and fanboy-appeasing star vehicles, Vasanthamani wants to be a diligent little craftsman. He takes the rural-drama template and – without really altering it – adds tiny touches that make a difference, at least while watching the movie. (You may not remember the film two days down the line.) I was surprised at how much of the drama is downplayed. When a middle-class schoolteacher goes to a rich man because his son has fallen for the latter’s daughter, or when a girl who’s been away for a while returns and finds the man she loved is now married to someone else, you expect huge showdowns – but Vasanthamani imbues the proceedings with a dignity seldom found in such films. And a welcome strain of humour, even in the more serious moments. This is how a character makes introductions after getting married rather suddenly: Idhu en appa. Idhu en amma. Idhu en pondatti.
Even the way the story unfolds is unusual. The film opens with some drama that sets up the enmity between step-siblings (Prabhu and Viji Chandrasekhar, both in top form), and it appears that we’re in for a film in which members of their families fall in love and face parental opposition. There is a love story, and there is parental opposition, but the way the characters of Prabhu and Viji Chandrasekhar are woven in shows a real writer at work. Vetrivel would have been even better with a shorter climax, and I wish Vasanthamani had incorporated more of the hilariously blue-ish comedy track featuring Thambi Ramaiah, but I walked out of the theatre happy with the things that worked. The fact that women are treated with respect and not like objects. Or the fact that a proclamation as poisonous as “Inga jaathi dhaan namakku aaniver” doesn’t lead to thunderous message-mongering. The antidote is injected into casual conversations and actions. It’s been a while since a purely formulaic film was made with respect for the art as well as the audience.
- Yaarudhu vaanam… Pogudhu megam… Adha patta poda mudiyadhuda = You can’t own the sky… or something.
- Naadodigal = see here
- Ivargaludan Sasikumar = And… Sasikumar.
- Idhu en appa. Idhu en amma. Idhu en pondatti. = This is my dad. This is my mom. This is my wife.
- Inga jaathi dhaan namakku aaniver = This society is rooted in caste.
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