At first, it appears like another lazy appropriation of a Rajinikanth film title, in accordance with Tamil cinema’s belief (or maybe desperate hope) that some of the Superstar’s luck will rub off on the film: a decent man named Dharmadurai (‘Makkal Selvan’ Vijay Sethupathi, phoning in his performance) exploited by unscrupulous brothers. But then we hear the names of these siblings. Arjunan. Beemarasu. Their mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar, doing more for the role than the role does for her) named them after the Pandavas, so they’d stay united. If only. Dharmadurai is an alcoholic. The only way the brothers can keep him in check is by locking him up. The early scenes paint Dharmadurai as a loser, and I ended up feeling sorry for the brothers who have to put up with his loutish behaviour.
But Dharmadurai is a doctor, and we’re ushered into a flashback – it’s set in Madurai Medical College, and it’s filled with cardboard characters. Like Stella (Srushti Dange), who draws a big heart in her notebook and gives it to Dharmadurai. Like Subhashini (Tamannaah), who, during the last day of college, asks Dharmadurai, “What is your next plan?” He replies, “Nee nalla irukkanum. Adha naan paakanum.” This doesn’t seem to be a college that produces doctors. It seems to be producing saints. Dharmadurai writes poems about peace for the college magazine. Subhashini, meanwhile, says she’s donating her body after she dies. Their teacher (Rajesh) changed his name from Muniyandi to Kamaraj, after the Chief Minister who implemented the midday meal scheme and provided a reason for Muniyandi’s mother to send him to school.
Is there another film industry whose directors suffer from such a chronic case of do-goodism? By all means, use the medium to address socially relevant issues, but why do our filmmakers choose dialogue as the sole means of conveying these messages? The most offensive scene comes about after Dharmadurai decides to help a transgender woman, who tells him she’s working as a watchman. “Watch-woman,” he corrects her, recognising what she wants to be seen as. This small line suggests an ocean of inclusiveness. But when he makes her an assistant in his clinic and hands over her salary, she falls at his feet. Why deify him? Why not let him be just a good… man? Dharmadurai is filled with scenes that are hammered home long after the point is made. It’s not enough that we see Subhashini and Dharmadurai in bed. The scene has to be prefaced with this admission: “We are living together.” It’s not enough that Dharmadurai, thanks to his education, speaks in English. He’s always carrying around a copy of The Hindu or The Indian Express.
And in the midst of all this literalness, all this noble-mindedness, a terrific story loses its way. Dharmadurai is the first doctor from his village, a man who has decided to follow his teacher’s advice and serve his people instead of migrating to the city and making money. The most interesting aspect of the film is the clash between these modern ideals and the pull of backward traditions. Dharmadurai’s brothers now view him as a cash cow. How dare he say he’ll marry Anbuchelvi (Aishwarya Rajesh, still looking for a part that will do more for her than she does for it) without a dowry? Is it possible to hold on to individual beliefs in a joint family? How do two people with failed relationships behind them get together and fashion a life together?
Had the director Seenu Ramasamy (who hints at his unreleased Idam Porul Yaeval in a line of dialogue) focused on just these story beats, he might have ended up with something as moving as his Neerparavai, which also dealt with alcoholism and star-crossed love. That sadly underappreciated film swept us along in a sea of emotions. Dharmadurai leaves us dry-eyed, despite much potential for drama. The early scenes are aimless, the latter ones affectless. The writing is so hurried, we barely have time to pause and react to the events surrounding Stella, Anbuchelvi, Subhashini’s monster-husband, and Dharmadurai’s laughably late discovery of the money in the bag he brought from home. These are the parts where the drama needed to be hammered home, and strangely, these are the parts where Seenu Ramasamy chooses to be subtle. Perhaps he wanted to be low-key, but sometimes that’s the same thing as uneventful.
- dharmadurai = upholder of justice; also this film
- “Nee nalla irukkanum. Adha naan paakanum.” = I want to see you doing well.
- Idam Porul Yaeval = see here
- Neerparavai = see here
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