What the thaali was to Tamil cinema of the 1980s, the haunted house is today – it spells kaching! The spirited location in Jackson Durai is inhabited by ghosts from the British-Indian era, and an SP named Sathya (Sibiraj) is dispatched to investigate the spooky happenings. The lyrically sophisticated song that accompanies him as he sets forth from Chennai, on his Royal Enfield, goes Motor… Motor bike-u… Burr burr burr… You expect another song (or two) when he runs into Viji (Bindu Madhavi). After all, we’re told he’s in the market. His room is littered with books like How to Stalk Date Young Women. But there’s just a snatch of romance, a snatch of a romantic number. (Mercifully, it does not go, Lover… My lover-u… Muah muah muah…) The most interesting piece of music in the film, though, plays at the very beginning: the title song of Hello Mr. Zamindar. In these Ilayaraja-worshipping times, why rope in a number from a 1960s drama that few still remember? Search me. But it’s a weird touch. It made me laugh.
“Weird” is the director Dharanidharan’s calling card. It’s a good weird, something we saw in his earlier film, Burma. Even the tag line of Jackson Durai suggests an off-kilter quality: “Pei-ing guests.” It gladdened my pun-loving heart. Dharanidharan is a weirdo in the Tamil-cinema universe, because he’s just two films old and he already knows what it is to have a vision. He knows what he wants his films to look like, feel like – he is, in other words, a genuine filmmaker, someone who knows what a reverse zoom is and isn’t afraid of using it on a ghost. The detailing in Jackson Durai is lovely – the un-garish visual effects, the mottled makeup, the stone gargoyles on the gates, the 100-year-old costumes, the Puccini aria that soars from a British officer’s gramophone. (Nessun dorma… meaning, no one will sleep. Heh! Who sleeps in a haunted house anyway?) And we already sense a signature, a love for Sivaji Ganesan’s films. Burma invoked Pudhiya Paravai. Here, we listen to the most famous speech from Veerapandiya Kattabomman. (Jackson Durai! Get it?)
But Dharanidharan’s writing, this time, lets him down. Jackson Durai only sounds like a horror comedy – the plot is more intricate, it wants to do more than just make you laugh, scream. It actually wants to tell some kind of story, a Groundhog Day-like story that keeps looping back on itself, each iteration the opportunity for a change. But too much time is wasted to get to this point, and when this conceit does kick in, not enough is done with it. The film feels, at once, too short and too long. The flashback to British India is played too straight. It’s not… weird enough. And the actors (the cast includes Sathyaraj, Yogi Babu and Karunakaran) don’t get much to do. A film about “English ghosts” that cannot begin the day without The Hindu, with Rajendran playing a British stooge named Bradley, and with a British boy-ghost who discovers a taste for mysorepak ought to have been way more fun.
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