Why NGK didn’t work for me at all

I remember a recent interview in which an actress was talking about the unconventional methods of acting she had picked from Selvaraghavan while filming NGK like not blinking, to avoid diluting the emotional intensity of a scene. There’s also this fascinating discussion which springs to mind, involving Selva and Baradwaj Rangan which gave me an insight into his style of working, the process that goes behind shaping the psyche of his protagonists. So with all the accrued curiosity I could gather I finally caught up with NGK on opening day. I’m not sure, but somewhere around the halfway mark I felt I enjoyed the interviews about the movie, the anecdotes about how it got made than the movie itself. The word middling comes to mind. Scratch that, half-baked explains what I felt much better.

The movie is about an educated man grappling with the politics around him, one knew as much from the trailer, so no surprises on that front. Somehow politics has become an ubiquitous motif in the past few years in movies this side of the country; political awareness seems to be the new “in” thing, what with brooding youngsters across platforms discussing (don’t even ask me about their level of understanding though) “social” causes, marginalization, representation in between cricket, celebrity wars and memes. That explains why off late, there are more politically motivated protagonists than usual leading the proceedings. It’s the new license to flex, to go anti establishment and come across as a cool messiah in the process. We saw it in Sarkar, Bharat Ane Nenu, LKG and now NGK.

In my opinion, there’s still a lot of fodder left to be juiced in this genre. After all, the “larger than life” aspect comes with the territory itself. When in another run of the mill masala movie, the protagonist has to be elevated with dramatic sequences as a hero, a leader of the masses. A lead man who is playing a cabinet minister or say a CM, is de facto all of that and more which makes it an automatic breeding ground for “mass” movies.

There are a few kind of movies that can be made here. One where the politics is the milieu in a personal, character driven story like an Iruvar, where an arc assumes shape an runs parallel to the journey of its lead and we find ourselves in their head space. And then there are these movies where politics is the grand central piece holding the proceedings together and the personal trajectories are merely incidental and in service to this larger scheme. A Rajneeti or NOTA fall into this bracket. These movies keep dropping stats, mimicking current affairs with pseudonyms and give a vicarious sense of going through political happenings with a fairy tale solutions. And there’s the third kind, which combines the best of both worlds, giving us an entertaining story of the protagonist while informing us in detail about the politics inundating his ecosystem. Here, both the personal and politics take turns to become cogs in each other’s wheels. Kodi or Sarkar come to mind in this space.

Coming back to NGK, it falls in the middle of nowhere. It’s neither a character study of its eponymous protagonist, his grand scheme, his personal journey and the close ones in it nor is it a intricately put together political movie which gives us a fresh perspective to the politics of his constituency which we didn’t already know of. It’s a laboured exercise in bizzareness, that strives to be a cult classic in every frame, with a motley bunch of broken characters displaying varying degrees of weirdness. Their collective range of emotions is somewhere between the third joint and being possessed by a confused spirit. Their decibel level is either a screech or a scream, depending on how abnormal the scene is. There’s this particular sequence, where NGK comes back from a really tight spot. Wide open glassy eyes, a weird smirk of an accomplished pedophile plastered across his face and a dance movement that would make tribal mating movements look sophisticated, Surya’s performance feels like the SOS call of a possessed man with a really heavy stone suspended from his balls, trying to recreate Dhanush’s “Divya Divya” moment from the director’s Kadhal Kondein.

Characters can’t be interacting among each other in an abnormal manner without an extraordinary reason to be that way; loose ends and loop holes cannot just exist and be deemed to be hidden symbolism that warrant a shameless rewatch because the film’s supposedly avant garde. There’s a difference between dropping hints, leaving some plot points open for interpretation and lazy writing that doesn’t give a rat’s ass to the viewer’s intelligence. Playing with the viewer’s imagination and leaving most things to his imagination are not the same thing.

Agreed, politics is a grey area and the characters cannot be black and white. They can be amoral, ambivalent, complicated and even unpredictable, as far as there’s a method to the madness or a “why”, even a small-flickering one lurking at some turn over the course of the screenplay to tie up the idiosyncrasies. Otherwise, they’re just a bunch of weird people, you couldn’t care lesser about, doing random shit with no rhyme or rhythm whatsoever.
There’s this litmus test I usually have for finding whether a movie with an antihero/unconventional hero works or not. If by the climax, a movie makes me feel bad, disturbed, overwhelmed, vicariously happy about the victory of evil in his form or at least like the rug was pulled from under my feet, I walk out a satisfied man. But if the only thing that lingers in the end is the after taste of butter popcorn, gratitude for not being an insomniac or a sincere hope for the director to be straight jacketed, you pretty much know how much the movie worked.

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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.