Readers Write In #347: NenjamMarappathillai is a smashing return to form for Selvaraghavan

Posted on March 18, 2021

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(by N Madhusudhan)

If you have followed his work to a reasonable degree, you know by now that Selva films, even his best ones, can get a tad indulgent at times. There are certain visible aspects you identify in his films– the performances are on a different pitch altogether, realism is something he seems to have lost interest in, the storytelling has evolved drastically – he doesn’t believe in a linear A to B, B to C narrative anymore, you expect a certain amount of disjuncture, he puts you through a lot of mind games. In his lesser films, these signature elements stick out like a sore thumb.In Nenjam Marappathillai, we see all these and more –  they find context and belonging. He uses the horror movie template to his strengths and the end results are exhilarating.

The plot is fairly simple – Mariam (Regina), a god fearing Christian who works in a church receives a job offer to take care of a child for a huge salary. She doesn’t question the reason behind the offer as she thinks it’s a call from god. She thinks she can use the money for the benefit of the orphaned children in the church. She takes up the job and realizes that she has to deal with an authoritative and disrespectful woman (Nandita), the mother of the child she’s come to take care of. There are no other women in the vicinity. The father, Ramsay (aka Ramasamy, played by SJ Suriyah) falls head over heels in love with her and soon starts lusting for her. She rejects all of his advances, gets brutally raped and murdered in return. How she avenges her death (or does she?) forms the rest of the plot that’s as old as the hills.

But as they say, with great filmmakers, it’s never about the plot. It’s about what they do with it. We saw what Martin Scorsese did with Hollywood’s done-to-death Cops vs Gangsters template in “The Departed”. He infused his favorite themes such as faith, existentialism, guilt, sin and redemption and made it his own without compromising on the genre thrills. Closer home, we saw what Karthik Subbaraj did with the zombie-horror template in Mercury.He converted it into a social commentary on environmental hazards caused by corporate lethargy, impacting the lives of several generations. We have many such examples. Selva does the same with Nenjam Marappathillai, he combines the must haves of horror films with the must haves of a Selva film and creates a film that’s one of a piece, a bona fide original.

Like most modern thrillers, Nenjam Marappathillai is a film with a big climatic twist. But just watch how you realize after the twist unfolds, that it was always coming, in a beautifully organic way. And it unfolds so seamlessly without coming across as a shocker. You realize that there have were hints all over and Selva is just preparing you for it. You instantly recollect and understand why Mariam gets attacked by a supernatural force when she first enters Ramsay’s house, or why Ramsay is floating upside down and dancing in the air in the song ‘En pondatti oorukku poita’, or why we frequently get visuals of Ramsay dressed as a Rockstar performing in an auditorium.

The fact that Selva shot NGK after this film hints that he probably got carried away with the mind games and pushed it to a tiring extreme, where you were left catching up to what the protagonist is up to and by the time you come to peace with what happened 10 scenes ago, the film had already ended. It felt like a highlights package more than a film. And it looked like he was quite uncertain about which way to go – did he want to Mudhalvan-ise a Selva film or Selva-fy a Mudhalvan template? It fell flat except for occasional flashes of rawness. But here, he seems completely in control of the Selva-isms. Absence of a big star has evidently helped as he allows SJ Suriyah to go bonkers with his character.

Even his signature dark humour, which again was a hit or miss in NGK, works brilliantly here. It is amusing how we are able to laugh at a man who is so despicable and blatantly evil. We laugh out loud when he happily dances with his partners in crime at a police station after getting away with murder. I haven’t laughed so hard at movies for a while like I did when Ramsay screams ‘rascal’at his staff in his exaggerated tone.

Selva is also not interested in developing Mariam as a character so we never really feel bad or root for her even when such horrific things happen to her. You don’t actually root for any character in this film. But the best part is that this is not the film’s flaw and is consciously by design. When the twist finally comes, these creative choices make more sense. In another film, a lot of these things would have seemed problematic but here, they make sense.

If we go by the release date of his films, it wouldn’t be an understatement to call Nenjam Marappathillai as Selva’s glorious return to form. But considering that he made NGK after this film, it makes me hope that NGK was a one off and this idiosyncratic filmmaker doesn’t compromise on his strengths to accommodate big stars with a family-friendly image. Because when they do come together, they do in a manner that is amusing, funny, chilling and sometimes all at the same time. Now how many contemporary Tamil filmmakers manage to deliver this blisteringly entertaining experience? With Nenjam Marappathillai, he does something more. He proves that a restricted setting and an evidently restricted budget is not a roadblock to great storytelling. After many years, we see an uninhibited man going ballistic with his material. He does what every self-respecting filmmaker would do with a generic template – make it his own with an authoritative stamp.