Reliving Varanam Ayiram- the daddy classic from a decade before

Over the years this movie has been a fodder for a lot of parody among my circle, that turns to sarcasm every time there’s a lull. We’ve made “daddy-daddy” jokes through our parlance, ridiculed the simplistic solutions that the movie offers to the myriad existential crises faced by it’s protagonist. Like how he turns to a body with under five percent fat to overcome the loss of a beloved or how all he needed was just a ticket to America to bring his “soulmate”(Mind you, this woman’s only been in his life for a little longer than a pimple.) into scheme of things. We’ve laughed at how life in a GVM regulated environment could be contained within a crew-cut,linen shirts,tanglish spouting upper middle class, women with an eye for chiffon sarees, who just wouldn’t lip-sync fully to a song lyrics, unrealistically real situations and solicitous voice overs to name a few. It is from this place that I began watching Varanam Ayiram a few days back. I had an hour to kill and wasn’t in a mood for my other alternative, a Woody Allen movie. Basically I was looking to for something light, unintentionally funny. What better place to milk some jokes than my favourite cow.

Some films set up in the homage space try to mimic the events. A rare few manage to recreate them. VA belongs to the latter category of films. It’s a movie made with so much love. It can be seen as an ode to a father. As a well intentioned meal to an audience raised on endless masala. And as a love letter to its mildly indulgent auteur.

Take for instance the stray anecdotes that Surya knits together as he reminisces about his late father from the fighter plane carrying him, as the new of his demise starts to sink in. The son’s a little under heaven from where he looks skywards towards heaven, as his mind  begins to interact with his father-Daddy hope you’re okay. You will be I’m sure. I shouldn’t have left you…..

We’re thrown into episodes from his childhood as retold to him by his mother. We get to know about how his father took the reigns from a inebriated lorry driver while they were shifting from Calicut to Chennai. We see how cool a dad he was during his school days, when he preferred him making small talk with girls his age at home than the street end. We get to see his younger self forming an instant yardstick in romance, as he looks starry eyed at his father lovingly caress his mother’s feet. These sequences have a certain handmade-candid quality to them, that we seldom come across in our movies. GVM employs the first person interview technique in these portions to move the narrative . A technique often used by Woody Allen in some of his works including Annie Hall and Husbands & Wives. A character begins to narrate an episode in response to a question, often asked by the protagonist who’s not in the frame. These episodes add up gravitas to his relation with his father, our relation with him. We begin to partake, rather invest in this man’s heartfelt love letter to his father..err ‘daddy’ as he plunges deeper into nostalgia. We get to know why the apple wouldn’t have fallen far from the tree.The narrative segues seamlessly from his childhood to his first love. From here on, what began as an ode to a father turns into a story of self discovery.

GVM writes his women with an inimitable-indelible quality. They’re modern creatures who appreciate chivalry in men, while tossing up the male ego just enough to remain enigmatic. They often have a ear for fine music, eye for detail and a tongue that doles out Tanglish. They’re well rounded autonomous beings with a life of their own before turning the protagonist’s muse. In Megna- his first love-we get one such person. She gets curious at the sight of this smitten man, squirming in the seat opposite her with unbridled excitement. Later she introduce herself to him while recollecting having seen him in an event once. All this while she responds without reacting, to his overtures . This episode culminates in one of the most organic lead ups to a song, as Surya strums his guitar to break into Nenjukul Peidhidum, as the voice over diligently notifies his dad as an afterthought that there, that very moment was born his first composition. With that moment was born another pop culture reference.

The movie moves from this chapter into the abyss of his depression leading in a third act that falls flat on its nose. The first person narrative technique addressing the father which hitherto felt refreshing, starts to peel off as an artifice. From here on the movie tries to punch above its weight, as it gets saddled with plot contrivances that just don’t add up to its slice of life quality. Be it the Makemytrip ad like self discovery sequence in Kashmir or the ensuing kidnap episode involving a mafia made of erstwhile actors and reality show participants, they either end up as prosaic postcards or popcorn purchase diversions, if not as unintentional jokes. Ditto to the montages that paint his stint as a defence personnel and his matrimony, with broad strokes and urgency of a amateur midwife to a sudden labour.All this with incessant chants of “Daddy I made pasta……daddy I decided to have a french beard” inundating the screen with just furniture and utensils on frame.

The movie does hop to its recovery in its last act over a tearful funeral.This portion tunes back into the initial mood of the film, that of bereavement. We empathise with his mom’s loss of words in the moment he tells her that they’re about to take ‘him’ away, as the procession to the crematorium commences. We completely buy into his denial to see a dead man in his father. Moments later, the sight of an empty house leaves us with an aftertaste of having revisited a wonderful every man’s lifetime through the eyes of his son. The movie delicately manages to hit the sweet spot between our adulation for this man and aspiration to be him beyond the screen at some level.

The issue with such personal movies is such they either tend to get over indulgent in an endeavour to recreate exactness or extrapolate drama to play to the gallery. The director baring his heart out should exactly know when to stop. To this discretion,I doff my hat to GVM. A movie that manages this tight rope walk to a large extent without placing its integrity in the altar of acceptance is a feat in itself. All the more given the culture of self-derived monikers and item songs it finds itself in.

GVM-Gautam Vasudev Menon
Tanglish- A cross over between Tamil and English.

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