Readers Write In #301: Soorarai Pottru is a dignified star vehicle with sound performances

Posted on November 17, 2020

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(by Madhusudhan N)

(Spoilers ahead)

The opening scene of Soorarai Pottru reminded me of MS Dhoni: The untold story. The latter began with Dhoni walking out to bat in the 2011 Cricket World Cup finals. The film then cut to flashback that narrated the cricketer’s journey from the time he was bornand comes back to the opening scene much later. We all know what happened there – one of India’s biggest achievements in International Cricket and stand out moment for MS Dhoni, the cricketer.

Similarly in Soorarai Pottru, we are forced right into the middle of action – a pilot is trying to land his aircraft and is running out of fuel. He is denied the clearance to land, a breach of protocol as we’re told. Maaran (Suriya) grabs the mike from the airport officer and asks his pilot to land his aircraft at a different location. He rushes to the spot, breaching all security and arrives just as the flight encounters a crash landing. The film cuts to a flashback. I thought this is where the climax of the film would come to. An underdog entrepreneur finally lands his aircraft despite stiff opposition. Like in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, where the protagonist’s success was in his giant war plane finally taking off when all odds were stacked against him.

To our surprise, we find out that this was just one of the many hardships Maaran had to face and he had many more coming. Maaran doesn’t get any payoff until much later in the film, barely minutes before it ends. The film has many such delightful subversions that keep us invested. This is a story of a man who worked his ass off. His toil and relentless pursuit of his ambition was crucial to his success. He wouldn’t have it any other way. There are no convenient coincidences. Maaran wasn’t born with all the greatness.

There are many other surprises. More delightful of those is the relationship between Maaran and his wife, Sundari a.k.a. Bommi (Aparna Balamurali). This is a marriage of shared ambitions, desire for breaking norms, entrepreneurship and intellectual compatibility. I was relieved that there are no forced “cute” scenes. Aparna Balamurali plays Bommi with a swagger you seldom see in heroines in Tamil Cinema. She earns more than her husband and her success is as important to her as her husband’s. The constraints of commercial cinema means she would still get lesser screen time but it is to the writers’ and actor’s credit that this character registers beautifully.

There are some bad surprises too. The first half frantically moves from one scene to the other that for a while, I was wondering if I was watching a Hari film. I wished at least some scenes breathed a little more. What prompted Maaran to join the Air Force after leaving his village? We see what triggered the thought of wanting to build a cost effective airline in Maaran. But we don’t see how the thought evolves into action. I could understand why the theatrical version would be this way. The filmmakers seem to think audiences want faster screenplay. But in OTT, you are allowed to take your time to build. Couldn’t they have slightly re-edited the film?

I could also have lived without the annoyingly one-note villains. When the rest of the film is well rooted in realism, this shift to the AR Murugadoss brand of simplicity is jarring. It doesn’t help that we keep getting badly accented Tamil out of these non-Tamil speaking actors. Paresh Rawal plays this thankless role only to be watered down further by the dubbing. I am still waiting for the day when corporate greed in Tamil Cinema would get the best reflection – far more subtle and organized. Not using caricatures uttering lines like “pathu rooba pocket la illadhavan nalla thoongarana!”. It remided me again of The Aviator, where the “corporate villain” played by Alec Baldwin could efficiently fit into the tamil cinema masala universe.

There were many such occasions when I went back to The Aviator. The line “Vaanam enna avan appan veettu sotha” instantly reminded me of “He owns Pan AM, he owns Congress, he owns the senate but he does not own the sky”. Howard Hughes in that film was a victim of his government’s favoritism and so is Maaran, in very similar ways. They both fight their way out of corruption and blatant abuse of power and authority. While The Aviator ends as a cautionary tale, Soorarai Pottru has a rousingly hopeful ending, staying true to its mainstream spirit.

The writers exercise tremendous restraint in mass-ifying their protagonist, and it is mirrored in Suriya’s performance. There is a terrific moment right before the interval when Maaran is pushed out of Paresh’s office and Paresh looks at him with contempt from the top floor, with a glass wall between them. An agitated Maaran picks a fire extinguisher to throw at him. I was expecting to see the cylinder break the glass door, with Maaran symbolically telling his oppressor that he will break every single barrier no matter how hard he is pushed. It turned out to be one heck of a mass moment in my head that I practically imagined myself in the theatre screaming my lungs out.

But Maaran is immediately grabbed by the security and is barely able to throw. The cylinder doesn’t hit the glass and falls on the floor. He is pushed to the floor and can hardly move. Paresh continues to look at him with contempt. You can practically hear the writers telling us “Not yet”. Maaran doesn’t get his due until the very end, making his success far more impactful. When Maaran grabs a corrupt officer’s neck, you see it as an honest man’s reaction and not of mass hero. The build up to this scene justifies this reaction.

The film scores high on emotional content.There’s a tragic irony of a teacher who, all his life has taught his villagers to write, barely able to write in his deathbed. This is a minor supporting character in the film. But even he gets closure before his death. And his presence is felt in some of the film’s key moments. There is another lovely moment when forgiveness comes in the form of a childbirth affirmed with the child carrying a key physical characteristic.

Even at places where the writing lets the film down, the performances compensate. Oorvasi is a sensation playing Suriya’s mother, a woman carrying the weight of a strained relationship between her husband and her son. She breathes life into a character that could have easily turned into a loud weeping machine. Watch her change her voice from steady to trembling in a matter of seconds over a phone conversation. The scene itself comes out of nowhere and we are dropped right into it. But Oorvasi sells it.When she breaks down, she also breaks your heart.

Suriya’s layered performance channelizes anger, helplessness, desperation and a flawed sense of optimism. Even his rage is accompanied with restraint. I got gooseflesh in the scene involving Maaran trying to meet the president. In many ways, his character is an extension of Madhavan’s in Irudhi Suttru. Both men equally possessed by ambition and the need to break out of systemic oppression. Suriya’s best acting moments in the film (there are many, many great acting moments) come when he shows vulnerability. Watch him in the scene where he asks his wife for a small loan. There is uncertainty, a fear of humiliation and a rare instance of male ego arising in an otherwise equal relationship.

When Maaran finally succeeds at the end, there is no slow motion walk. There are tears, gratitude and a genuine sense of being humbled. It’s a victory of unconditional support from a wife, mother, colleagues, the villagers and a father’s dying wish. The writers allow each of these characters their own moment without making it all about their star hero. It’s also a victory of a woman who quietly wrote her own success story.

In real life though, Air Deccan had to eventually sell its operations to Kingfisher. But Sudha Kongara is interested in the story of a man who dreamed of running a low cost airline and fought the bureaucracy to achieve it. She stays true to her vision and the result is a dignified masala film with just enough bite elevated by knockout performances.