A discussion about 24 must begin with Suriya, and a discussion about Suriya must begin with the fact that you have to travel back in time, to Rakta Charitra in 2010, to get anything close to a performance from the actor. Had Suriya been just one of those “mass stars,” from whom we expect nothing but charisma and fourth-wall-breaking “fan moments,” we’d simply sigh and wait for his next movie to roll along. But in addition to Suriya’s star power – pretty much the only thing that holds up the Singam franchise – he’s also a persuasive performer, and one kept waiting for a film that felt worthy of him. And it isn’t as though he’s been picking easy scripts either. 7aum Arivu, Maattrraan and even Massu Engira Masilamani – all sound great on paper, high-concept star vehicles you can’t see too many other heroes being interested in. But the films were sloppily written, sloppily made. One more expensive, out-of-the-box dud, and we might have had to resign ourselves to a resumé filled with Singam sequels.
Suriya gets his mojo back in Vikram Kumar’s expensive, out-of-the-box, time-travel thriller 24. (It’s a high concept Modi would love: the world’s first time traveller is an… Indian.) The star delivers three finely calibrated “mainstream” performances, playing just enough to the gallery without breaking out of the characters. In the inventor named Sethuraman, we see a mad-scientist gleam in the eye – even his grin is situated the right distance between manic and nerdy. As the villain Athreya (Sethuraman’s twin), Suriya is all dark panache – he’s what he’d have been in Anjaan had the film had a script. At some point, Athreya ends up in a wheelchair, and we see a crumpled mass, crushed by decades of impotence and frustration. (Cinematographer Tirru lights the character in darker tones, ashen browns compared to the golden yellow Sethuraman is often bathed in.) And as the “regular” hero, Mani, Suriya is charming like he hasn’t been in years. The presence of a solid script, a director who knows what he’s doing, seems to have put the spring back in Suriya’s step. The look-ma-I’m-a-star smugness that infected a lot of his recent performances has been wiped clean. Watch his swagger as he discovers what he can do with the watch Sethuraman invented. It’s like Spider-Man discovering his powers. There’s wonderment, delight, and a hint of devilish mischief.
Unlike most directors who think their job is done once they get a star on board, Vikram Kumar believes that the star comes after the script (he’s the writer as well). I can’t remember the last time a star vehicle was so meticulously, so inventively written – the scenes move like moves on a chessboard. We’re constantly caught off-guard. We think we know what will happen when Mani overhears a conversation between Athreya and his loyal aide, but… We think we know what will happen when Satyabhama (Samantha) discovers Athreya’s secret, but… The way the villain reaches out to the hero (through an ad), the reason for the name “Project 24” (gradually unveiled) – everything clicks into place like components on a Swiss watch.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that a writer-director so attuned to surprise (and so averse to cliché) cannot think of anything to with Satyabhama except pack her off to an agricultural college we never see her in – she exists solely so the romantic track can exist (more about this later). But he compensates with the character of Mani’s mother (Saranya, who’s wonderful, even if you wish directors would give her instructions other than “exude maternal warmth”). I’ve never seen a mainstream movie treat a single mother with such dignity and empathy. She’s there for the requisite dose of “amma sentiment” – true. But she’s a fully-fleshed character. She’s out of myth. She’s the equivalent of Yashoda.
24 isn’t some wannabe tech-fest where a hotshot filmmaker ropes in some good visual-effects people and sets out to ape Hollywood. Like all good masala movies, the film, which opens with a scene featuring an eagle, is rooted in Indian myth – there’s a sense of karmic destiny all through. (Note, for instance, the way the “key” finds its way to its rightful owner.) And like the best masala filmmakers, Vikram Kumar infuses these mythical tropes with fun. The film’s core is the concept of time, and yet, it’s not a lumbering dramatic device. There’s a light, spot-the-reference quality to the way we’re constantly alerted to it. Look, it’s there in Mani’s name. Look, it’s there in the silly conceit of a family breaking a vow of silence at 6 pm. Look, it’s there at the bottom of a Co-optex ad (“your time starts now”). We have fun, because Vikram Kumar is having fun.
The romantic track gets tedious in the second half, but the initial portions are amazingly good. The director uses the love angle to “explain” to the audience the crucial sci-fi concepts, and these scenes are laugh-out-loud (though, I admit, had these scenes not been so entertaining, they may have played out like pages from Stalking for Science Geeks; maybe they still do). A stretch that ends with a selfie with Dhoni is a bliss-out. The scene needn’t have gone there, for the hero’s already done what he set out to do – but it’s these grace notes that make a love track sing. I would have been happy just seeing a sci-romance along these lines. And here too, the writing is rock-solid. Because we get the cricket-stadium scene, Mani needs to explain his presence there, which is why he invents a condition named imagine-o-romance-0-philia, which leads to a song in which the heroine keeps seeing the hero everywhere. The idea for the song isn’t new (we saw it in Baasha, for instance), but you have to respect a filmmaker who bothers to lead up to this idea, when we’d have happily bought the song sequence even without it.
Except for a terribly placed song in the second half, one of those numbers where hero and heroine straddle suicidal rock formations in order to proclaim their love, AR Rahman’s numbers are led up to, and the sole action scene, too, is built up to. It has a reason to exist. And it ends shockingly (and rather gruesomely for a ‘U’-rated movie), leading to the best kind of interval moment, one where you ask, “Erm… did he just die?” It helps that the villain is no papier mâché tiger. He’s murderous – though I wanted to know where the hate sprang from. In such a long film (almost three hours), why not spend a few minutes establishing the enmity between Athreya and Sethuraman? Okay, so 24 isn’t perfect. The insistent score gave me a headache. And the film, though it never loses its inventiveness, plateaus after a point. I wished the end had brought me more towards the edge of my seat. But these are minor reservations about one of the most intelligent, joyous mainstream films in a long… time.
- Singam = see here, and here
- 7aum Arivu = see here
- Maattrraan = see here
- Massu Engira Masilamani = see here.
- Anjaan = see here.
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