Sometimes, while watching a movie, I’ll end up thinking: ‘But Kamal Haasan has done this before!’ It’s possibly a couple of things. One, Kamal’s films are so unique, so ahead of their time, that they become the template for a certain kind of movie. Two, present-day filmmakers have grown up worshipping these films, and they think, “Okay, so this didn’t work then. Maybe now’s the time.”
All of which is my way of saying that Irumugan, Anand Shankar’s new film, plays out like a mashup of Vikram (a cold-hearted secret agent, a widower, is the only one who can save the universe) and Aalavandhan (the leading man in two flavours; the vanilla hero, and the cassata villain, colourful and generously sprinkled with nuts). Here, Vikram, with his penchant for making every acting job look like a stint in a Siberian prison, plays RAW agent Akilan and a pharmaceutical mad-scientist named… Love, who’s concocted a compound that, when inhaled, can transform ordinary men into Schwarzeneggerian cyborgs. Imagine the consequences if the drug fell into the hands of terrorist organisations. It’s hasta la vista to the world as we know it, baby!
Anand Shankar’s first film, Arima Nambi, was derivative too. It wasn’t cinema as much as collage art composed from a piece of this Hollywood thriller here, a scrap of that one there. But when done well, this kind of empty-calorie filmmaking can be very satisfying, the equivalent of a junk-food meal. Arima Nambi was slick, smart – it had real rhythm. None of this can be said about Irumugan, which veers between just-about-watchable and inexplicably dull.
Or maybe there is an explanation: the director was hit by the condition called bigstaritis. It’s what happens when you cast a big-name actor, and your budget shoots up, and you find you have to begin thinking about how to make your high-concept movie – filled with references to the hippocampus and (if I heard right) Succinylcholine (whose chemical formula, C14H30N2O4, makes its way into a line of dialogue) – play in Ariyalur and Vadakampatti. Enter Thambi Ramaiah, whose bumbling routine shows us what it would be like if Mr. Bean entered the world of James Bond. Enter Karunakaran, whose sole function is exposition – he plays, essentially, a fat book in a science library. Enter the songs of Harris Jayaraj, who’s second only to Tolkien in his capacity to invent new languages. In English, these terribly positioned (and terribly choreographed) numbers would be called speed-breakers.
These “compromises” are death to a Hollywood-style thriller. (What is it about films set in Malaysia that reduces promising filmmakers to shadows of their earlier selves?) And the writing is too slack, too generic to compensate. You can see the twists coming. You don’t hire the most popular actors and write them out of the story after two scenes. So no one comes to these films for nourishing drama, you say. And the early action scenes are good. Anand Shankar shoots multiple set-ups and chops the footage into quick, disorienting cuts that slash through the tedium of the typical Tamil-film action scene. But the stunts get repetitive after a point. Inhale drug. Become superhuman. Hurl opponent at wall. Rinse. Repeat.
What about Love? Vikram wears a salt-and-pepper ponytail and eyebrows shaped like McDonald’s arches. He pitches his voice low and speaks with an indistinct accent that keeps shuttling between New York and Nanganallur. Is Love gay? A transgender? There are no answers. Only hints. A raised pinkie while holding a cup of coffee. A fondness for lipstick. And this line, laying out what would happen if Akilan joined him. “Ulagathile nee raja, naan rani.” Love is too underwritten to be offensive. Why not some backstory about how he came to be this way? Without this, the character is just 70 kgs of camp. There’s a scene that sounds horrific on paper, where Love carves someone up and lets them bleed to death, but on screen, we don’t sense this sadism. We just see an actor amusing himself with swishy hand movements.
Akilan is marginally better-written. He is single-minded in his dedication to the task at hand, and one development (involving Riythvika, who seems to be getting typecast in bit parts in big-star films) brings out a side that’s almost cruel. A small salute. Big-hero movies usually steer clear of such moral ambiguity, especially when a woman’s life is in danger. As Akilan’s partner, Nitya Menen (who seems to be getting typecast in supporting parts in big-star films) manages some dignity on her way to the bank to deposit what was hopefully a fat pay cheque. Only Nayanthara escapes unscathed. The actress looks so fabulous these days (who’s her stylist?), the goodness or badness of her films is irrelevant. What the camera feels for her is true… Love.
- irumugan = the man with two faces
- Arima Nambi = see here
- “Ulagathile nee raja, naan rani.” = You will be king. And I, queen.
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