Readers Write In #558: Ultimeta Varisu

Posted on March 3, 2023


By Karthik Amarnath

When the trailer of Varisu popped up on OTT, it was an easy decision for me to watch the movie. A simple family drama, a pleasant bungalow backdrop, and a Vijay character who was not so much a son of the soil as he was the offspring of an opulent Sarath Kumar. They were playing out the well-worn trope of a morose father and a misunderstood son. Add two uncaring brothers, a bear it all mother, and a customary villain, and you knew you’d get a film as inventive as the name of Vijay’s character (Spoiler Alert: Its Vijay). So I was prepared to laze on the couch for a couple of hours alongside tired old cliches. Like tired old cranks, even if you don’t see eye to eye with them, there’s an odd comfort in just watching them be. 

As it turned out, except the part where the filmmakers had forgotten that they had a lead actress who could act, or that they even had a lead actress, the film pretty much toed expectations with the imaginative richness of a metronome. Every beat and beating was predictable. Scene after scene spelt formula in dated terms. But even watching old formula with no variation whatsoever has its benefits. For one, it frees your mind to start searching the film for subtext. And a mass hero film can be a gold mine for meta readings. 

Because, let’s be honest, every mass hero film is first a meta film. Image building for its star is the only constant. For Vijay, the image building goes back at least twenty years, to the unsubtly titled Tamizhan, where he solved India’s debt crisis. Since then, he’s saved us from terrorists (Thuppakki). tackled farmers’ plight (Kaththi), granted free healthcare (Mersal), not to mention overthrown governments (Sarkar) and empowered women (Bigil). Whatever be the issue, he’s solved it with a formula film. By that stretch, Varisu almost feels like a vacation for Vijay. This is a mass hero saying, this time he wants to put family first. 

Or maybe this is part of a meta formula for solving another big issue today: work-life balance. We do get a sermon or two on work-life balance in the film. Vijay delivers those somewhere between building an app to feed the poor and busting a human trafficking racket. Yes, I know, a mass star is never fully off duty. But to be fair, these were ten minute detours, and the rest of the film is mostly about Vijay and his business family. Or maybe I should call it the business of family. In another sermon, Vijay goes off on Sarath Kumar for treating his family like a business module. Its when Sarath challenges his sons to compete for the CEO position and roars “Survival of the Fittest!” Vijay is aghast. Clearly, Sarath hadn’t kept up with the times; being a ruthless businessman in a Vijay movie was sooooo 2018

It was a neat twist though to have Sarath Kumar learn family values from Vijay. In Sarath’s heyday— which was about twenty five years ago— he owned the role of the family value preaching patriarch. In NaattaamaiSuryavamsam and the like— aka the family films of that time— he would typically play a double role, where his older Sarath would turn Dasaratha and banish the crown prince, aka his younger Sarath. Now in Varisu, the younger Sarath is replaced by Vijay, and true to form, Vijay gets banished. So I wondered if a mantle was being passed on here, as the title so obviously suggests. Is Vijay going to be that patriarch twenty five years from now? Who’s going to be Vijay’s Varisu then?

Heck, who cares. In twenty five years, we’ll have humanoid robots that can ActGPT their way into any role. And if the roles are like anything in this film, they wont even need training. I was amazed at how little was written for the main cast of this film, all but one of whom have won at least a Filmfare award or two. The only actor who hadn’t was Shaam; he plays one of Vijay’s older brothers. I felt bad for him. This is the Shaam who burst into Tamil cinema twenty years ago with perhaps our first multiverse movie,12B (adapted from Sliding Doors). In Varisu, he’s reduced to playing a role that a Sreesanth or a Sadagopan Ramesh could have sleepwalked through. I wonder what Shaam thinks when he watches 12B today. I wonder if he’s thinking that there’s a parallel universe where he might have boarded the right bus to superstardom. 

Let me get down to the business of Varisu, which has something to do with mining corporations, although it’s not obvious what the corporations were mining for. I figured that was some kind of metaphor. Maybe we, the audience, needed to mine the answer for ourselves. The only real clue was that Vijay was facing off against Prakash Raj, a two time National Award winning Kannada actor. Given that the KGF movies had used a mining story to turn another Kannada actor into a national star, I figured this was Vijay solving his pan-India problem in the way he knows best, by making a formula film out of it. I mean, look at the climax fight of Varisu that takes place over “rocky” grounds, look at Vijay’s father’s name which is identical to Rocky’s father-in-law’s, and look at the…..okay forget it. I’m sure we can mine this film all the way to Chinese philosophy.

And Varisu has it’s own philosophies, which are about as Chinese as instant noodles. There’s two minutes of wisdom on everything from business ethics to nepotism to parenting to marriage. Divorce gets an extra helping or two. I cringed a bit when Vijay jokingly suggests divorce to his sister-in-law, just so he could jive to Jimmikki Ponnu. But by the end, the movie had turned the whole idea of divorce into a joke, and it just made me want to…well, I shouldn’t really complain when I knew what I had signed up for. I guess, even my nerves are never fully off duty.

I will say though, there is an ease to watching Vijay do his surefooted shtick, when he plays to his lightweight strengths. I had a fun time during a boardroom meeting in the later half of the film, when Vijay throws kutty story digs at Sriman and VTV Ganesh. I don’t know what it is, but the sight of VTV Ganesh on screen always draws a little chuckle from me. I’d say he was the biggest reason I could endure three hours of Beast—endure being the operative word.

Thats the thing with Varisu too. You start watching because its the easy thing to do on a lazy day, but by the end it turns into a rocky mountain climb anyway. Hanging on to subtext is fun, but what you really want is a character to pull you through. The closest I came to finding that in Varisu was through Jayasudha who plays Vijay’s mother. It’s a thankless role with a character who seemed as lost for a script as I was. But in one particular scene, she sits across from Vijay staring at an empty plate, and we get a very unintentional meta moment. Having witnessed each character in the household outnumb the last one, Vijay asks, “Why do you put up with all this? Haven’t I asked you to leave?” There’s a pause, and for a moment, I wondered. Would she take his cue and leave the scene? The bungalow? Or the movie? 

She simply shook her head. This is family, she said. This is formula, I thought.