I saw Varsham! The same day as Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, which was weird since they are very different movies who share an actress playing two very different heroines. But I think I liked Varsham better. At least, “liked” as in “willing to rewatch it multiple times and happy while viewing it.” Not so much “liked” as in “thought it was actual a deep and rewarding film with multiple layers and messages.”
So, fun movie! That’s my big deep first impression. Fun! Trisha is loveable and peppy, Prabhas is soooooooooo young, but still charming and confident. The bad guys are satisfyingly bad and get their comeuppance, the romance is super cute, all of that stuff is great.
I actually had a really hard time figuring out to say, because it’s one of those films that I get so caught up in the experience that it is harder to think of anything to say about it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and also isn’t necessarily a good thing. If there’s nothing to think about, it means there is no moment that made me feel like I really had something to sink my teeth into and consider. But on the other hand, it also means that I was just riding a wave of feelings the whole time and enjoying the film without needing to think too much about it.
And there weren’t any feelings I was unhappy to feel with this film. I never felt super sad or angry or frustrated. I was feeling everything the characters were feeling, but they were remarkably happy people (for film characters)! Our hero didn’t have a burning anger, more a sort of burning mild sense of affronted pride. Our heroine didn’t have a deep heartbreak, more a sort of slight pain that was quickly dispersed. The movie tricks you by starting with the lovers apparently separated, but then within ten minutes, it goes into flashback of their completely happy and easy romance, followed by like twenty minutes total of misunderstandings before a reunion. And even that twenty minute stretch is broken up by a good half hour of fight scenes scattered in and out.
And there was no fear for the characters either. Our hero got shot so many times I lost count, and he was always able to walk it off and be as good as new within seconds. Our heroine was stalked and kidnapped, but the kidnapper made it clear upfront that he was planning to marry her, and obviously there would be no hanky-panky before the wedding, or violence, so she was never in any danger either. Everything is going to work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It’s just a great movie to watch on a cold depressing rainy day after you’ve just seen a whole string of Mani Ratnam films.
It’s kind of too bad, in such a light and happy film the acting/writing/directing don’t really get the appreciation or attention they deserve. Everything sort of blurs together and becomes all of a piece. But all of that was really really good! I already talked in my Vinnaithandi Varuvaya review about how amazing it was seeing Trisha in two such different parts in the same day. It really was amazing how she was able to change not just the character, but the whole style of acting.
Vinnaithandi Varuvaya follows a much more low-key style of acting than I am used to in Indian films (at least, Hindi and Telugu films. Most of the Malayalam and Tamil ones I have seen have been pretty quiet). There’s no big monologue explaining her motivations to the camera. There’s no super exaggerated gestures to indicate her personality and emotions in particular scenes. There’s no adorable faces being made for the camera (well, maybe in a few of the songs). And then in Varsham, totally different! All her emotions are write large on her face at all times, she’s always wide-eyed with love, or seething with excitement, are being the epitome of girlish innocence and happiness.
(The epitome of girlish innocence and happiness)
This kind of character, and way of performing is so habitual, that it seems easy. But it is really hard to do, in a way that feels natural. A way that lets the audience ignore the little voice in their head that says “Nobody acts like that! This is clearly a modern professional actress playing dress-up!”
(For instance, this! I actually really like Aish in this movie, but it is a relief when she can stop pretending to be a naive teenager who gets her kicks playing with goats and switch to being a confident and challenging wife and partner)
Prabhas, I don’t know if I’ve really seen him outside of his “super confident macho modern urban cool dude who can fight and doesn’t talk that much” comfort zone. He was a little more talk-y in Mr. Perfect, and a little less modern in Bahubaali. But for the most part, he is what he is. This was apparently just his third movie? He is already very confident in front of the camera, and has nailed how to use his unusual body type to the best possible advantage. Lots of stretching his arms out to show his wide reach, using his height to loom over the bad guys, making the girl look tiny in his arms, and so on. Again, not things that really force themselves on your notice when you are watching a movie, but all things that are hard to learn and really add to the enjoyment factor!
(Notice at the end, when he is dragging the guys around, he actually minimizes his height by hunching over, which emphasizes his greater reach, making him look like the center of the scene, the spoke of the wheel)
Prakash Raj was predictably excellent as Trisha’s father. Once again, not only being believably evil, but evil in a way that is different from all the other times when he is evil. This particular Prakash Raj bad father has a hint of cowardice, but also a hint of charm to him. You can see why his wife puts up with him. And he is also completely without menace. You can see why his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law are all completely fine ignoring his dictates and laughing at his big pronouncements.
One of my favorite parts of the film, actually, was their family dynamic. And it was also a big part of why the film felt so light. Sure, technically, the conflict was because her father tried to drive a wedge between the young lovers, and disapproved from the start of their relationship. But really, even his own mother-in-law laughed at him, it just wasn’t that big of an obstacle. And the hero never gave it much respect either. He was perfectly willing to marry her without her father’s approval, so who cares what the old man says?
This is the closest the film came, maybe, to making a societal statement. The statement being, who cares? So your father disapproves of your boyfriend, so what?!? You can just elope whenever you want and your life will be fine. Even more importantly, so your husband is worthless and gambles all the time? So what?!? Just laugh at him and move back in with your mother. Just because he is your husband doesn’t mean you have to respect him or let him control your life.
And they weren’t making a statement through asking for big traumatic upheavals in society. It’s not that Trisha’s character wanted a career or never to be beholden to a man or anything like that. She was perfectly happy to get married and be a housewife, she just wanted to be able to choose a nice guy who had a little more get up and go than her father did. Really, just to be able to choose a guy for herself at all. And her mother and grandmother also thought that was a perfectly reasonable expectation, giving her explicit permission to go running after the guy she liked instead of waiting for her father to hand her over to a stranger.
Okay, there was one thing that was a little off. Our happy and in love heroine is discovered by a producer who wants to put her in his film. Which is okay with her, not really exciting but also not really horrible. Although, of course, what she really wants to do is quite acting and marry a nice middle-class boy. This all makes sense within the context of the film. But, then you start to think, “wait a minute! The person playing this role, is actually an actress, who has chosen to act rather than be married to a nice middle-class boy. So the whole argument that all a woman would want is a good marriage falls apart right there! Unless the real actress is also being pushed into this through familial pressure. Should I feel guilty for watching her now? Or should I find the film less believable since it claims no good woman would really want to act?”
At least it’s better than in Tezaab, the movie which somehow manages to share every significant plot point with this film and yet feel totally different. In that one, “Ek Do Teen” was set up as this horrible thing that was forced on poor innocent Madhuri by her father. Her father who just wanted to sexualize her and make money off her with no concern for her modesty! But, then the song starts, and you get totally caught up in how happy and goofy and fun it is! But, should you feel guilty for that? Since the character is supposed to be so miserable and forced into performing? And also because it really does sexualize Madhuri, who was fairly young at the time? Or can you just ignore all of that and enjoy it as its own thing? I don’t know! And I am very glad in Varsham we never saw the actual “nightclub number” that Trisha was being forced to perform right at the beginning.
Really, all along, I was primed for things to be a little darker than they were, because I was expecting the Tezaab version of this story. Like, Trisha’s father would be really really forcing her to perform, through violence and fear, not just through some vague promise that she didn’t respect that much anyway. Or, they broke up and Prabhas left town because of a huge tragedy/misunderstanding that would forever blight their lives. Nope! It was just a stupid fight, and he got a good job out of town. I was really braced for the analogue of Chunky Panday’s death (sob!), but no. The hero and all his friends are just fine at the end. That’s probably why the two films feel so different, if you just looked at a plot outline, it is the exact same thing, but the way it is performed and the details of how it happens have such a different tone, that the actual plot similarities fade away. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it, if I hadn’t gotten a quick synopsis from my friend in advance and noticed that her synopsis matches exactly with the Tezaab synopsis I had given her.
I mean, sure, there’s also a Ramayana similarity, which this version leans into hard. Sita kidnapped, hero and his army go storm Raavan’s stronghold, etc. etc. What I find really interesting is that, if this film is influenced by Tezaab (really, it’s the EXACT SAME PLOT. Just done differently), then Tezaab was influenced by Streets of Fire (a great movie, and just like Tezaab, except they cut the romance flashback), and Streets of Fire probably wasn’t influenced by the Ramayana, because it’s an American movie.
Just so you know I’m not crazy, let’s look at that plot outline:
- Successful female performer is kidnapped
- (In both Indian versions) it is explained that she only performs because her gambler/drunkard father forces her, and he is the one who first brought the kidnappers into her life
- Old boyfriend is hired by her producer to rescue her
- (In both Indian versions) Old boyfriend has a flashback to their romance which ends with him leaving town
- Old boyfriend reunites with old friends and with their help rescues her from the villain’s stronghold which includes a whole community of bad guys, not just a single building hide out.
- On the way back to safety, hero and heroine fall in love again as they ride in a vehicle they have commandeered
- Upon return to safety, there is a brief misunderstanding about the hero receiving payment for his actions/the hero not sure he is good enough for her
- In Tezaab and Streets of Fire, he tries to convince her he is no good for her, and give her to a more educated and wealthier suitor.
- Final one on one fight with the big bad guy (in Streets, it’s a sledgehammer duel!)
- (In both Indian versions) all misunderstandings are cleared up and they are together forever
Sure, the details change, like how they first met and fell in love. Or how in Streets and Tezaab the hero’s sister is threatened while in Varsham it is his nephew. Or Willem Dafoe running a motorcycle gang in Streets while Kiran Kumar runs a smuggling hide out in Tezaab, and Gopichand has some sort of ancestral rural gangster power Varsham. But the biggest difference is in tone, and it is really amazing how that can change the story!
Streets is all dark and post-apocalyptic. Very America in the early 80s, the sort of pessimism and despair that lead to the rise of Reagan. Tezaab is all India in the late 80s, super sexy songs, a damaged hero, and a triumphant but bittersweet ending. And then we have Varsham, all happy all the time! Everything will work out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Even if you are kidnapped, you just have to sit tight and wait to be rescued. I will happily re-watch all three films innumerable times. But, if I just want happiness and comfort, probably Varsham will be my go-to.