Thoongavanam- the movie that wasn’t

God! It was bloody good. I just couldn’t have enough of it. My facial hair felt validated. My adrenalin surge was making my fist pump endlessly into the desk adjoining the PC. The lurking fanboy finally had a reason to resurface with renewed vigour.
The “it” I’m talking about is the trailer of Thoongavanam. Boy was it lip-smacking with Thalaivar in amazing form, kicking some ass. A Taken it was going to be, I thought in Kamal style. Another one to go to the long list of masculinity-for-dummies manual alongside Satya and Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu, to name a few.
We all revere the mesmerising actor the man is. A rare breed who could own the screen without disturbing the aesthetics of the story movement; towering tall enough to not belittle the movie. His recent Papanasam being a case in point.

Coming back to Thoongavanam, I walked into the first show with great expectations. The promise the tease managed, the reveal couldn’t keep up. Every thing that caught my imagination in the trailer suddenly seemed like red herrings . What with every passing scene, I could palpably feel my fervency falling apart. Was the movie bad? No.
But was it just good enough to just not be bad? This was a Kamal Haasan movie after all. All of us know that the actors would be well casted and they wouldn’t disappoint. Likewise the technical aspects can be taken for granted to be top notch. So Thoongavanam had all these bare minimums fulfilled. But did the fans of the star have anything to root for like a Vedhalam which released alongside? No.

The reviews which floated around were extremely flattering with most calling it a wonderful remake of the French movie, Sleepless Night with major assertions towards the ‘justice’ it had done to the movie.
So, is it enough for a remake to just do ‘justice’ to its original. How relevant would such ardent submission be, if the original’s milieu was diametrically different from the remake’s. Not to mention the difference in sensibilities of the respective viewing demography.

Sleepless Night is a French movie that catered largely to European sensibilities when it released back in 2011.We are a population that adds tandoori chicken to make a pizza sell. If the number of manchurians and fried rice variants that’ve been imagined by our street food industry were to be patented, it would scar the Chinese for a lifetime.
The same holds true for celluloid adaptations of foreign origin movies too. The content clicks when nativity is addressed.
This is where this movie misses the mark by some distance. Taking the culinary metaphor of pizza further, the pizza needed some tandoori sauce and Indian herbs to become palatable on the Indian roads, but continued to be a rich-bland affair that belonged on the ovens of Milan still, but aspired for acceptance in Mylapore.

Let’s take the case of another Kamal classic- Avvaishanmugi which was adapted from an English classic itself, Mrs. Doubtfire.  The movie kept the central conceit intact, but had an independent existence without tampering with the core of the original.
The motley product of dispute, reasons, characters & props that the narrative deployed stayed local and relatable, steering it in a direction different from the original, making the movie speak in the language of the hoi polloi.
Mrs. Doubtfire was a classy affair with subtle situational humor. Avvaishanmugi on the other hand was its unabashed masala recreation that relied largely on dialogue based humor and the crowd pulling ability of its lead man. Whether it did justice to the original in its entirety is subjective. But what it managed to do justice to was far more consequential than that. It reached the story to a large audience, in the process seeping into popular culture. No wonder the movie was such a roaring success.

Thoongavanam’s a grim-long-faced affair unfolding in a night club, with grimmer adults on endless loops of hide-n-seek throughout its running time. It didn’t help that it released on Diwali, a festival that makes mincemeat of guilty pleasures. Where movies are expected to be run-of-the-mill escapist affairs in line with the popular mood, it didn’t help that it was a slow movie that had every character operating at a breakneck speed. Every cop and crook in the movie, run for their lives or to save a dependent’s in this convoluted plot involving multiple ratting in either camps. But neither do we connect to their desperation nor to the plot’s urgency to cut to the chase in every sequence.

Throughout the movie we’re shown Diwakar’s(Kamal) endless failed efforts to get to his kidnapped son. He’s head-butted, pushed and punched by stock characters whose names gratuitously roll in the end credits as “Extras”. They obviously wanted to throw some light on the lead man’s masochism, if not vulnerability. But end up celebrating his fallibility to an audience that had gathered in hordes to hoot and whistle, alienating them in the process.

The redemption does come in the end. But it’s too precise to invigorate any celebration and doesn’t even belong to its lead man. In the mainstream format, when a story takes a significant time to vividly paint the struggles of its lead man, but coughs his redemption out like a blemish in the end, it defies the very syntax of movie-making for the masses.


Commercial movie making is largely about making-believe than fact establishing. The leverage of exaggeration and the staging do the trick. Case in point being Emerich’s 2012, an apocalyptic movie that traces John Cusack and his family comfortably escaping from one natural disaster to another with breathtaking ease. The contrived escapes were a bigger spectacle of defiance than the disasters itself; playing the primal battle of man versus nature to the gallery.
A closer case being Liam Neeson’s Taken that resembles the plot of Thoongavanam to a large extent. Just that Neeson’s character is staged as an invincible one-man army. Something that Thoongavanam should’ve done. Something Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu aced. For who can forget the wolf whistles that went up the roof when Raghavan went,”Chinna Pasangala. Tha..Yaaru Kitta da vilayadringa?”
That was a movie for the masses. A star’s conversation with his fans.

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Iraivi- a men chronicle about women

The story of goddesses can be told in a lot of fashions. It can be set in heaven, clearly delineated from hell-much like the virtues of the protagonist from the vices of her nemesis- in a “vanilla approach”. But a more effective modus operandi to celebrate her without propagandizing would be to set the milieu in the dungeons of hell; squinted from where the heaven would appear in all its glory at an inaccessible height. What better way to eulogize the Goddesses, than from the perspective of fallen gods.

Iraivi starts with montages of different women on the threshold of new beginnings-one making a  bucket list about the qualities of her ideal man; one hopefully about to get married to a film director despite her friend’s reiteration of the fraternity’s character(or the lack of it) and a widow in the midst of a passionate intercourse with a man; who she objectifies to just be her dildo-all of them separated by aspirations, united by rain.

The movie is not a  “baptism by womenhood” sort of affair.Infact on the contrary it is an endeavour at establishing them to be flawed contemporaries. Firm counterparts who could thrive on their autonomy.

This is a film that shows, without trying to show off; expresses without going all out to explain. The way it rolls out, we understand and appreciate its intentions.
A lesser movie would’ve resorted to sub plots to burnish the glory of its women. But not this one. So when we have the drunkard husband waking up to yet another hangover, we’re shown Yazhini slapping him to only breakdown to an embrace moments later; when she gets to know of the cause to the madness.
She is a reasonable person-who can expand and contract to the whims and fancies in the jurisdiction of love-only by choice.

When the man tired of being the “other man”, comes to Malar place with his father to convince her to tie the knot with him; we witness a stereotype-wrenching role reversal. Poker faced she tells the man’s father that she’s in this only to satiate her salacious needs, that her deceased husband-the only man she loved wouldn’t be able to.
Both men are left to simmer and squirm in the unadulterated quality of her honesty; that doesn’t make room for diplomacy or deceit to come across as affable.
She is completely capable of  being independent -to “paint” a life of her own possibilities-of a man’s reassurance of love.

Ponni is distress sold as a penny stock to her husband, who himself as we’re told hasn’t found any takers . All her dreams of wedding remain scattered when after a rough consummation on their first night, smoking casually her husbands tell her she can remain with him if she “adjusts”. Her light of hope(flickering as it was) goes off with him turning the light down in the room.
When he comes back to her after serving time in prison-for a crime he so proudly commits putting their marital life on the altar of gratitude-she hits him back with his “adjust” ultimatum in a different context; not venomously, but from a less naiver space.
She is gentle, not brittle. Her femininity lends to her a softer side, often mistaken to be fragile.
These women become the alphas in their relationships-by their overbearing arc of patience, by their display of dogged resistance,ability to move ahead, to look forward to life without turning spiteful-even if passively so.

As the movie draws to its end the women-collateral damages to the fallibility of their respective men-who were knobs in their hands, get united again by rain. Only that this time around, they get drenched in it without restraint. They’re content with being prosperous islands in a sea of men, who get to only scrub on the shores, but never let the sea get beyond that.

Papanasam- A master at work

Drishyam was a rare piece of cinema. It blended art and commerce; without having to  lay either on the altar of sacrifice towards upholding another. It was one of those movies that made the audience feel smarter from the edge of their seats, while unknotting to the bedrock of the mystery scene after scene. Thing with visceral genre of movies is that, while they tend to engage; seldom do we empathise with the plight of a protagonist.It is in this very aspect that, Drishyam is exclusive.
It stirs a storm and throws a family in its eye. Their survival through this tumultuous phase is designed like a game of chess, with a simpleton deploying a maze of deception to lead astray the legal system.
Drishyam was a memorable movie not just in Kerala, but throughout the south. The movie not only ran for months together in these parts, but triggered spontaneous remakes in every South Indian language. So when the news of the tamil remake starring Kamal Haasan broke; it was a mouth watering proposition for every fan of his; more importantly every fan of cinema.
The original starred Mohanlal as the protagonist-Georgekutty, a movie smitten-cable TV operator who bails his family our of a murder they had committed, scot free.What made things interesting was not just the prospects of seeing one doyen interpret a role made immortal by another; but the fact that Drishyam was a watertight plot driven movie with modest room for its hero to expand. It was always the plot above the characters, who dissolved in the flow of its narrative. There’s always been this accusation about  Kamal movies by some naysayers, , that his performance at times tend to hijack the movie while propelling it ahead; notwithstanding the peaches that they were.

So Kamal reprising the cable operator as Suyambulingam was not just a tight rope walk, but shone a light on the ability of a giant to bend down at the threshold of a glorious piece of art; to beautify it without looming large over it. Papanasam was a special movie also for the fact that, it brought to fore Kamal-the actor alone without the accoutrements that generally make his movies an exhibition of his versatility,at times reducing the director’s to a vestigial designation.
Last time this happened,we got Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu-a movie that didn’t warrant a thinking hat to appreciate the underlying subtexts. It was resultantly a very popular movie with the masses,reiterating the huge star that he was.

Papanasam easily got to rate among his most consequentials efforts, for carving a niche for itself as a masterpiece; despite staying honest to the original alongside classics like Kurudhipunal and Satya. Kamal’s Suyambulingam is an endearing man with a gift of the gab; speaking in a mellifluous Tirunelveli dialect(which aurally resembled a symphony composed in bullets) while not being smitten by movies. His portrayal was faced mostly with the same conflicts as Lal’s Georgekutty, yet had its own magic;managing to decorate without diluting.

This role was that of a small-towner’s, with a simplistic outlook towards life. Unlike Haasan’s earlier ventures, this jurisdiction wouldn’t let him wax eloquently in chaste english about abstract aspects of communism and his long lasting adherence to atheism- the meta movie aspects of a quintessential Kamal movie.
Suyambulingam is a man, who flaunts his agrarian roots with the length of the earthworms wriggling beneath his feet. Unlike the actor’s previous outing, where his real life persona often percolated into his reel life manifestations-even if seamlessly so-this one was diametrically opposite.
He wasn’t the compulsive global citizen that we’re used to seeing him play so often, with a fine blend of altruism and sarcasm. On the contrary here was a man-whose life revolved around his adorable family-to protect which he would go to any extent.(Even if it meant tripping to the other end of law).
The movie neither had a grand ambition about defusing a bioweapon or outsmarting a militant outfit; instead it had a family based out of a small town making conversations about a long pending trip to the city over breakfast and a miserly dad who hoped to pay for his daughter’s expensive excursion on a prorata basis.

While the average actor makes you appreciate his acting like an anxious kid performing a skit on the lookout for applause, a master makes you identify with his character’s plight through his acting. Haasan effortlessly is the latter.

His Suyambulingam is a vulnerable man. Vulnerable by his situation, not by ability. A trait you witness so often through the twinkle in his eye-as he deceives his way out of every investigative procedure. There’s a look of fluid contentment in his face- forged out of dexterity and relief- every time the investigation buys into his carefully crafted red herrings.
It is sheer bliss to watch the thespian essay an author backed role with such aplomb after a long time. He just doesn’t flesh out his character beyond the prosaic; but makes him a jolly good fellow with his own little charm, be it the way he gets heady while watching an erotic song or the fashion in which he cajoles his wife to bed-with a liberal dose of talc and innocence.

Papanasam is stroke of genius even if deconstructed to minute details forming its frills. Like the way it is bookended by the shot of Suyambulingam’s eyes-metaphorical of watching things unravel through his eyes; almost poetic given the fact that the movie deals with the deception he creates.

Kabali- A “what-went-wrong” deconstruction

Now that Kabali is out in the theatres and the fracas around it has settled down, people have started talking beyond the gargantuan hype surrounding the movie; and the feeling seems to largely be mixed- bordering from bafflement to disappointment. And a handful of the die-hard fans of Rajni seem to crying out foul, at the not-so-flattering air inundating the movie.
A marketing blitzkrieg carved out of planes plastered with Rajni’s face and silver coins forged with his impressions, can only go as far as kindling the curiosity of the hoi polloi, to check out the movie over its opening weekend. What transpires in the dark of the theatre, as the movie starts to interact with its audience is far removed from the hype held in the painted plane; that handheld them into the theatre in a frantic spell. The final taste that the chocolate leaves in the mouth is completely independent of the celebrity in the advertisement and the expensive foil wrapping it.

Honest marketing campaigns as they come, achieve the middle ground between preserving the true core of a product, while attempting to augment its reach. When the product rolls out, they manage to create a positive synergy to firm up its equity. This is probably where Kabali seems to have slipped.

Marketing is not an elaborate artifice, but a propaganda with a fiduciary angle to ensure an honest positioning of an underlying product. Hollywood employs this to great effect. Take for instance the case of Robert Downey Jr, easily the biggest star of this generation. The marketing campaign for a simple little movie starring him called, The Judge was diametrically different from the scale and tone of his Avengers movie. It was positioned as an emotional- court drama with a personal conflict at its heart. When it released the audience  didn’t feel deceived, as it catered to the niche it was made for who exactly knew what to expect from it. Imagine their plight had they gone in expecting an Ironman kind of a movie, to only find a vulnerable Downey Jr( sans his Tony Stark quirks) reconcile with a grumpy father in the backdrop of a lackadaisical small town.
Coming back to Kabali, going by the two teasers that went viral  to the numerous promotional initiatives creating the endless halo around the movie, one thing was clear. They were loudly reiterating the movie to be a quintessential Rajni fare with celebratory accoutrement on the lines of a Basha or a Annamalai. There was not an inkling about it being otherwise, as the color and scope fashioning the imagination of the prospective ticket buyer were far removed from an experimental movie that was not run of the mill.

About the countless memes doing rounds about feeling let down by Rajni not playing his larger than life self, that firmed his stratospheric stature. We go to a circus that touts the jumping through the flaming hoops by its exotic tiger as its flagship act. Suddenly the tiger wants to juggle like the monkey, much to the crowd’s bafflement. The attempt as noble as it is, wouldn’t sugarcoat the collective disappointment of the audience that had paid to watch the tiger’s deft defiance through the rings of danger.

Evaluation of a movie from the standpoint of the income and expenses of its producer isn’t an organic assessment of the taste it leaves, lingering in the minds of the audience as they step out of the theatre. For movie making is an art form that thrives beyond the jurisdiction of commerce, the flourish of which doesn’t depend on the coffer of the investors alone.
Kabali to me is an overpriced cola without its fizz, the fizz people were conned into paying for in hordes. I would anytime suggest a helping of Annamalai over the trivia of a painted plane carrying wealthy people masquerading as Thalaivar fans to an uninitiated person; to understand the aura of the phenomenon called Rajinikanth.

Kabali and Uttama Villain- the similarities that we overlooked

Cinema at a surface level is an ostensibly exciting medium that promises to manipulate your imagination for the price of a ticket and the duration of the movie. While most movies leave our minds as we peel away from the seats once the lights come on, few remain to intrigue. Sometimes some of such attempts are made of the fabric that wove another special attempt. Some might be surreptitious spin-offs with gratuitous level alterations to appear unique, while some might be loud-announced inspirations at the outset.

Dissimilar looking things with a little more deconstruction might turn out chalk and chalk, while things appearing identical at the surface level might actually be chalk and cheese beyond the initial deception.

Last week saw the release of the Rajinikanth starrer Kabali amidst much fanfare. But it was surprisingly not a typical Rajini escapist fare, which instead resulted in a lot of debates and observations of subtexts and symbolisms that were overlooked; something that usually happens after the release of every Kamal movie.In introspection, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Kabali and Kamal Haasan’s Uttama Villain that released last year. This piece is my attempt at deconstructing the similarities between both the films.

The Imprisonment-Metaphor and Literal

If Kamal’s Manoranjan was imprisoned in his fame, Rajini’s Kabali is in a facility. Uttama Villain starts with a star who is trapped in a prison of his popularity, too comfortable to notice the mediocre that it has turned him into. Kabali opens with an elderly gangster who has been framed into imprisonment for 25 years now, who in the evening of his life doesn’t have anything to look forward to, beyond the walls of the prison.
It takes the knowledge of a life ending cancer to shake up Manoranjan out of his self imposed imprisonment, while it takes a joint motion of compassion by a bunch of Malaysian diplomats to end Kabali’s term.

The Surprise daughter and the Foster father

In UV, a doctor walks into the life of the protagonist to shine light on a blind spot from a plaintive chapter of his life, an unrequited romance. Mano gets to know about his biological daughter through him, a love child he had hoped to have in the past. With the knowledge of his imminent death comes another surprise of as much gravitas, a relation to yearn for with the little time left.
Kabali sets on a manhunt to take down the men behind the murder of his beloved wife, who was pregnant.  As he narrows in on another suspected scumbag running a brothel to take down, neither does he expect him to be a foster parent;  leave alone to his own daughter,  who he had assumed to have perished along with his pregnant wife years ago. Moments later in a crossfire, the revelation of his life stands personified in his daughter spraying bullets all over the room to save his ass.

The Artifice-Theyyam and Meta movie & Gangster plot and Malaysian Tamil rhetoric

Knowing that his days are numbered,Manoranjan wants to make a memorable movie, that would embalm him in the minds of the people long after his time. He chooses to make an existentialist comedy of errors about an “immortal” theyyam artist who manages to prevail over death, ironical to his reality.
Kabali takes it upon himself to be the voice and at times, fist of the marginalised tamil demography of Malaysia. He swears to bring down the empire of his ideological opponents in a gang that goes by the name of “43”(in dragon font), while running a rehabilitation facility for tamil people in the front end.
UV had a solid core in the self discovery of its dying protagonist and how he unites with his estranged family, that was diluted by the parallel narrative involving the meta movie that was neither funny nor poignant enough to be taken seriously.
Likewise Kabali too has a wonderful premise in the emotional journey of an old gangster who brings back his scattered family together, the impact of which was watered down by the montages of Tamil revolution and the excessive caste rhetorics that neither caused a stir nor organically gelled with the narrative.

The Reunion, Redemption and Departure

By the time UV draws to its end, Manoranjan manages to win his estranged daughter’s love, reconcile with his indifferent family and most importantly finds peace within, at the sight of all his close ones coming together in one warm embrace. He eventually dies , but only after redeeming himself with the completion of his last movie, that he leaves behind to last forever.
Close on the heels of his union with his daughter, Kabali wakes up to another pleasant shock about his wife being alive in India. Soon, all the three unite in one teary-eyed occasion, that wells up their eyes with relief, than joy. Fate continues to be a solicitous hope changer in his life with every incongruous surprise it hurls at him.
He comes back to Malaysia, to single handedly annihilate his arch nemesis-the 43 gang, to only be confronted by irony, in the form of a bullet that left the pistol of an unassuming youngster from his own camp.

When Uttama Villain released last year, it dichotomised the audience by the bipolar reception it met with- into ones who swore by its mastery in their elaborate deconstruction articles to be a timeless classic with a myriad metaphors beneath or simply trashed it to be a preposterous movie that failed to hold their attention. The movie finally ended up as a failure at the box office.
Encore of the same seems to be happening with Kabali, with the movie turning to be  fodder for a lot of debate; atypical of the  vanilla euphoria around a Rajni starrer. For now, we’ll  have to wait and watch as to where it lands from here.

Kamal Haasan, the name says it all!

At sixty something,he’s a veteran now, a doyen in every dimension of the word. A crown jewel to the acting fraternity. His body of work and the influence it exudes statiting the obvious. But with regards to him, age is just a number. Not in the cliched way, that he looks eternally young. No. What I’m talking about is the fact that this stroke of genius which we see on screen these days to sheer bafflement didn’t get honed over the years to get there, it was there since forever.

Case in point being Nizhal Nijamagirathu that released in 1978. He plays Sanjeevi, an atheist with a communist affliation (his alter ego) with an authority that belongs to an oeuvre spanning a few decades of mastery.The way he struts across the terrace,nonchalantly crooning Kamban Emanthan,gives you the image of an actor expressing his feelings, not the lyrics.Mind you he was in his early twenties back then.
The way he looked into the eye of his woman, was stuff that made the cupid delirious. The way he dexterously wove poetry around the scaffolding of her humming on a then-and-there basis in the Sipi Irukudhu,Muthum Irukudhu sequence from Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu,stands testimony to his prowess in romance.Most of his mainstream movies treated women as capable peers- strong willed and independent- not just as objects of desire or the shrews that needed to be tamed.

There was something about his mojo, his portrayals endeared while continuing to enthral. It is not now, but even back then, he breathed fresh life into the male protagonist prototype. When every A-lister around him back then, was content playing monochromatic-single note characters; he plumbed the depths of the flawed vulnerable man with aplomb.
Take Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, where he sits down for dinner after showdown with his idealistic father. Red faced he rants about the importance of being a good human being over a good musician. He simmers about how the confrontation before didn’t affect his appetite. Then he quivers. In a moment the red in the face pales down, anger segues into disappointment, as he breaks down leaving the food unattended.

Satya was about a angry young man, alright. Not the noblest of character sketches in the Indian panorama during the eighties one might’ve assumed, with his peers- Rajinikanth and Amitabh playing it to great effect in every other movie. But what Kamal did to the archetype, few have managed. He added a humane coat to its larger-than-life stature. Beyond the dishoom-dishoom, Satya was a guilt saddled son, who rightfully felt instigated when touched beyond the tip of his nose. The outcome of his instigation weren’t only street fights like the norm used to be. Instead, it sometimes came out as heartfelt meltdown like the one with Amala in the jeep or a sarcastic rant at the hypocrisy of his neighbourhood, who wouldn’t testify to a dear one’s murder.

Kuruthipunal opens with a letter, a prologue of sorts in his baritone, addressing the societal disparities and the bloodbath that sucked him into it. His is a voice endowed with a sonorous finesse to it. His diction brings a certain credibility to the proceedings, even before a scene begins to kick in. You almost feel like, his granular articulation could baptise the crudest of swear words and tackiest of lines in Tamil.

There’s only so much a writer can write, so much the director can oversee; what transpires onscreen is the actor’s making. Imagine a generic scene-where a man in his forties meets his girl at a wedding and its love at first sight for him. He asks her to marry him immediatly and she accepts.This exactly is the sequence in Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu where Raghavan proposes. Kamal waltz through the scene, while churning out corny lines playfully with his chivalry intact. He makes us totally buy his dramatic proposal and its acceptance. In a less gifted actor’s hands, this scene would’ve been another instance of craddle snatching patriarchy inundating our industry.
He brought along a certain dignity to onscreen break-downs. A rare sight back then, even more now. When his eyes welled up with disbelief as he stood islanded ,hit by an offhanded remark of his mother in Aboorva Sagotharargal, we sunk along with him. In Pammal.K.Sambandham when he naively stood there after being used by a woman he loved, asking her dumb things to cushion the gravitas of her rejection; a part of us died there.
Well, what could you say about a man who could direct as well as he could act. Sing as well as he could direct. Orate as well as he could sing. When Maniratnam was asked about Nayagan in an interview, he said,”When you have an actor like him, all you need to be is a pair of eyes and follow him“. That should pretty much sum him up.

Epiphany in the woods

This piece is a deconstruction of a scene close to my heart. It shadows a rejected photographer, camping in a forest on the lookout for a trophy picture to amp up his portfolio. We travel with him until his eyes find an exotic bird, considered a phantom by the high priests of the fraternity operating the door to his entry. They widen with excitement as he captures the perched bird through his frame; when something happens that catches him unaware. It tweaks the full stop  into a comma at the end of his quest, that seemed like a means to his acceptance till then.

And just like that the bird that was pecking on the bark, spreads across its wings in a superfluous gesture to make for a breathtaking sight that overwhelms him. It shouts out to the sky- probably a prayer – as he slides against the tree behind, eyes welled up from confrontation with the nature’s glory. He walked into the forest in search of a bird, but found himself instead. His identity dissolves along with the last left traces of his ego, as he bares his soul naked in vogue with the ways of the wild.What seemed like a mere trophy object, feels like the manifestation of mother nature in all her glory.

The bird pushes a leaf down like in acknowledgement –  that spirals and waltz in the air -grieving separation while defying gravity on its descent. Chin up, his face moves in anticipation to the dispatched leaf, as its gentle passage comes to an end on his face. Eyes closed, he soaks in the moment as an avalanche of epiphanies hit shore, culminating in a state of infinite peace.The leaf is not so much a leaf as a badge of honour it has become to him.

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.