(Sorry, 6 church meetings in 3 days kind of killed my writing time, so this is going up a day late) Should I have watched the Telugu version instead? I went with this one because I know the director’s home language is Tamil, and of course it’s Rahman’s home language too and the songs were half the reason to watch it. But on the other hand, Nagarjuna’s son is very very cute.
This was a fascinating movie. I don’t know if I want to say a good movie necessarily, but I also know it wasn’t a bad movie. But it was a difficult film. Not because it made me unhappy to watch (although that too), but because it was kind of a tip-of-the-iceberg film. Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was that way too. We saw little bits of the characters’ lives, and little bits of expressions and dialogue that isn’t the usually blatantly obvious acting and dialogue from Indian film. A flash of a look back, and that was the only hint that the heroine is in love. A glimpse of someone at the window, and that is all you see of her father finding out. These kinds of things. Filmmakers usually focus in on them, or slow them down, or otherwise make sure the viewer sees what is going on. But not Gautham Menon.
I wonder if that’s why Ratnam likes working with him? Because the songs really carry everything. The characters may never talk of deep things, or let their emotions blatantly show on their faces. But inside, inside they are all this glorious sea of feelings, and Ratnam gets to show that in his songs.
This movie is particular hard to parse out because the characters go from hiding one kind of emotion to another. And the mystery we are solving through little hidden clues in the background goes from being a mystery of emotions and relationships to one of violence and murder and scandalous secrets. Very confusing!
Now, if this were a straight up “bad” movie, it would be like Baadshah, where the comedy and romance and crime is all mixed in together and there’s no real thematic consistency. But it’s not like that, the characters are recognizably themselves straight through. And both halves have the same general theme, that Silambarasan is a young man on the edge of growing up, trying to find his purpose. And that Manjima Mohan is a special young woman who is inspiring him to grow up.
(I mean, I love Baadshah. But how is a comedy plot about Shahrukh pretending to be a blind nightclub singer in the same movie as an assassination of the Prime Minister?)
I’m not saying it’s a great movie, like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was. The ending especially ends up feeling slightly disjointed, like they knew where they wanted to go but weren’t quite sure how to get there. Manjima’s character isn’t quite as strong as she could be, there were several moments when I really wished she had been able to do something for herself instead of leaving it all to Silambarasan. And there’s a really sad thing that I can’t quite get over and I wish they had either left out or softened a little. But overall, it works. After all, Rahman’s songs are still there.
And now, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We open with everything all mixed together. Kind of like Roja or Kannathil Muthamittal, we go from violence to peace. And, like those two other movies, it doesn’t feel like some cheap trick to draw in the audience, it feels like a purposeful decision to show us that the world is a dangerous place and we should not forget that even while we are drawn into the happiness of the rest of the film.
In this film it is even more confusing because we don’t know who these people are that we are seeing being chased and locked up and stabbed. And then we go straight to our hero’s voice over as he starts talking about a different kind of violence, the normal healthy experiences of a young man’s life. The kind of thing you outgrow as part of growing up, not the kind of thing you grow into being able to handle. A silly fight between him and his friends and some boy who has been following his sisters around.
In a larger sense, this fight is about the normal and healthy amount that a boy/man usually needs to defend the women under his protection. The very first thing we learn about our hero is that he has sisters and he is in charge of protecting them. Which means going to talk to some boy that’s been bothering them, and also giving them the best bedroom in the house while he sleeps on the couch, and listening to their talk and being interesting in their lives, and all sorts of things like that. This is what “protection” means in his life, being aware and courteous, and having one fight when it was called for, but no more.
There are a lot of conscience parallels with Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa in this movie, for one thing I am pretty sure they use the same exterior set as well as the same hero. But they are put in to give a clear message that the hero of that film was a boy, while the hero of this film is past that age. He talks about how all his friends had their romances in college and all of that, and somehow he got older without ever falling in love. At another point he looks at himself in the mirror and wonders when he got so fat. And there are comments on how he is old to have just finished school because he was held back a few times. Where I notice it the most right away is in his relationship with his sisters. In Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa his sister was around, but he didn’t really think about her much beyond just being around. He hadn’t grown up enough to start to appreciate that relationship and to take on his responsibilities as a brother. But in this film, our hero is past all that childish scrabbling, he cares about his sister and thinks about her comfort.
(And also he cares about his motorcycle. There is no real thematic need that I can see for this song, but boy is it fun!)
The romance is where the differences really become apparent. And they are supposed to be, we even get a little teaser of the love theme from the earlier movie in the background, and when he asks his sister who her friend is, she teases him by saying she is a Christian from Goa, before correcting that she is a fellow Tamilian whose family lives in Bombay. That opening reminds us of the earlier film, and then we can go on and see how differently this romance plays out when the characters are different. Meaning, a little older!
Our hero, instead of following her around and dreaming about her, and never feeling really confident or in control of himself, just sits back and waits. For one thing, because he has a mature relationship with his sister, he knows that she will help him. And he knows that his parents trust him. And he knows that the girl will trust him too if she gets to know him, he isn’t a hopeless futureless boy. So the romance is very undramatic. His sister helps him by inviting this girl to come stay in their house, and all he has to do is be kind and friendly to her, and trust his good qualities to shine through.
The biggest difference of course is that this relationship has a future. Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was about that difficult period when you are old enough to be in love, but don’t have the social power to get married. But in this case, they can absolutely get married. And there is no hurry about it. She is an independent woman planning a career, he has finished school and will be starting his own job soon. Both their families trust them and will support their choices for their lives. And so they can sit back, relax, stay up all night talking and getting to know each other, and just wait for the relationship to naturally evolve.
Which it does. After weeks and weeks of conversations, sometimes just the two of them and sometimes with his sister joining them, she is leaving the house. Not forever, she and his sister are still best friends and are planning to start a business together (as scriptwriters! Which leads to some nice meta-commentary about how they should try making different scripts, not the same old stories). Our hero can still sit back and wait for her to make the first move, there is no hurry. And she does make the first move! She sneaks out of the house and asks to join him on the week long motorcycle trip he is secretly taking. Because it sounds like an adventure and she wants to experience something new.
It’s hard to read how she feels about him at this point, and what his plan is for moving the relationship forward. But that’s a stylistic choice, the director wants us to have to guess a little, to have his actors be like real people, not emoting machines. We know our hero is in love because he told his friends about it, but we wouldn’t be able to tell just from how he acts with her. But she chose to stay up talking to him, and now she is trusting him to take her on this trip with him, alone. Whether or not she is in love with him yet, she certainly could fall in love with him. His efforts haven’t been wasted.
The trip sequence is lovely. And almost dialogue free. We never really see them talking so much. I mean, we see them talking, but we don’t hear much of their dialogue, the script just tells us they talked all night. I don’t know if that is a weakness or a strength of the film. The conversations feel kind of flat and simple, but that lets the emotions underneath them come through in a different way than if they had been all witty and poetic. And now, on the trip, it is all about her sitting behind him on the bike, viewing the sunset, staying at a house in a village and sleeping under the stars.
Until it all ends with a shock! A truck jumps a highway divider and runs into their bike. And then we have the artistic high point of the film, when the bike spins out and our hero, in that moment of shock and adrenaline, suddenly sees his whole life as just a dreamy moment of pure love for Manjima. It’s also the clear dividing line between the two halves of the film, and that moment of love is what ties them together. He regains consciousness just long enough to say that if he dies, he has to tell her he loves her. And that is the promise that drives everything which comes next.
Our hero wakes up in a new world. Manjima is gone, his best friend Mahesh (the only one who knew they were traveling together by bike instead of safely by train) has come to the hospital to be with him. And he doesn’t know if his love story is over or just beginning.
And actually, it’s neither! It’s on a break, because there is a different kind of story that has taken it’s place now. Manhima calls to tell him she is at a different hospital in the city, with her parents, her father is dying and her mother is injured, they were both attacked by men with knives and she doesn’t know why and she is all alone.
This is not the kind of story where Silambarasan belongs. He is a young man in love about to start his career who has one fight with a boy who bothers his sister. But he loves Manjima, and he told her he loved her, and that brings him into this new space. That is the tie that connects the two halves.
It’s a bit strange how well our hero does as an action hero, despite no practice or training. He not only wins fights, he also figures out who is good and who is bad, who can be trusted and who can’t, and what the next move should be. The biggest surprise is that he doesn’t feel anything. He can kill and hit and leave behind those who are too injured to follow, without any hesitation.
In a bad movie, this would be as unexplained as how he is able to figure out how to use a gun so easily. But this is a better movie than that, and so we have an explicit speech about how one doesn’t know what one is able to do until the moment comes when it is needed. He never thought he would be able to do this things, but now he has, and he feels capable of anything else that may come up.
The other thing that sets this movie apart is that, for once, our hero decides to fight back against the mysterious forces arrayed against him. It’s the usual kind of movie, Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much kind of thing, where they are going about their lives and suddenly all these terrible things start happening and they don’t know why. He goes to see Manjima at the hospital, and soon after the police show up, and he realizes they are fake police, attacks them, and takes both Manjima and her parents in a stolen ambulance. They are stopped on the road by goons, he manages to take them out (this is a nice almost meta moment, he acts the scared out of his depth young man that he should be, which leads them to underestimate him and laugh at him, until he suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots them), and then follows Manjima’s suggesting of taking the ambulance to the home of a family friend who is a doctor. Where they are once again attacked, worse than ever, and finally barely manage to escape on a stolen motorcycle.
But here is the moment where it changes. They should be scared and just happy to be alive and free. But suddenly he stops the bike and says “no”. He isn’t going to just run and forget. He isn’t afraid and he wants to fight back and find out why this is happening.
Here’s how I see this part. It’s not that a romantic hero suddenly landed in an action movie. From this point on, it starts to be clear that he was an action hero who was mistakenly put into a romance up until now. This is the life he was made for, to fight back and be fearless. That’s why it took him so long to finish school, why his other romances never really worked out, why he still hadn’t decided on a career. Because this is what he should have been doing all along and he is only now realizing it.
Manjima, on the other hand, is USELESS!!!! The character is a little weak in general, but this part, she agrees to fight back with him, she doesn’t want to hide. And then she promptly hesitates and whimpers and moves slooooooooooooow and begs him to show mercy and does all the irritating things that useless heroine characters do. I don’t know if it is the actress or the director or a combination of the two, but she really needed to show some backbone here! So irritating!
This is the same part of the film where my other big problem comes up, they kill Mahesh!!!! Our hero’s friend who has been with him through thick and thin, who came all the way to Bombay when he was in the accident, and he’s dead! It’s toooooooo sad! Like, it’s a narrative problem, I am supposed to be moving on from the death and focusing on the next scenes, but instead I am thinking about Mahesh the whole time because I’m still upset. They should have either made the character less charming and memorable, or made him just seriously injured, not dead.
This bit stumbles, but I might appreciate it more on a re-watch. When I know it isn’t the end, that I won’t be leaving these characters with this unpleasant taste in my mouth. While it feels like a finale, with all the action and dramatic statements, in fact it is just more set up for the real finale. And that’s where the film gets revolutionary.
In a “normal” action movie, we would have had just the start of a romance, jumped into the action ASAP, then had it go back and forth with the hero and the villain seeming fairly equally matched, and finally ended with the hero buckling down and being very brave and overcoming all obstacles. And then probably a wedding, or a song, or a wedding song.
In this movie, we saw the romance in full, and everything else surrounding that, a happy family life, small plans for the future, a whole world was built. Which made the action feel more real and sudden and shocking when it came in to blow it all up. I should have known that the hero buckling down part wouldn’t be normal either.
It starts the same, with a few more action scenes until it gets down to a stand off between our hero and the “big bad”, the corrupt bald cop. But then Gautham Menon hits “pause” on it all. Manjima is shot, which usually means our hero would go insane with anger and kill everybody and then save her. But that’s not what happens.
In a “normal” action film, the heroine’s danger is just a momentary thing, something to give the audience a reason to really cheer on the hero in the final fight. But in this film, it is his love for Manjima and commitment to her which has been driving Silambarasan all along. Menon wants us to see how that feels for him, how her danger isn’t just a momentary thing to be brushed past. And so we see her shot. And then we see a desperate drive to the hospital, a panicked conversation, the audience is just as afraid and uncertain about her fate as Silambarasan is. And the topic of the conversation isn’t “I will avenge you”, it’s a return to where this whole thing started, their love story. Before she dies, all Manjima wants to do is confirm her love for Silambarasan in the middle of all this madness. It’s the closing of the circle, Silambarasan first got pulled into all of this by telling her he loved her and feeling that committed him to sharing her troubles. And now, Manjima has finally returned his love, which just means he is even more locked in to solving her problems.
This isn’t the kind of commitment that can be lived out through a big fight scene, just like their earlier romance wasn’t about fantasy love songs and big gestures, but about quiet talks and slowly getting to know each other. Which is where the brilliance of the ending comes in.
After having this compressed time of drama, suddenly we start seeing days tick by. It’s a waiting game, our hero has disappeared and the Big Bad cop villain is looking for him. There’s a nice moment where we get to see his family and friends again, the police go to his house, his nice family is there, and they introduce one of his friend gang as their “son”. The police go away, unsatisfied. All of the little things from the beginning of the movie are what is helping him now, not his magical action skills, but his understanding family who trust his judgement, his loyal friends, even his small secret need for independence and self-reliance that lead him to travel off the books by bike, instead of leaving a paper trail that would let the police be sure who he was.
And then the ending, the brilliant mind-blowing ending. Remember how I said it almost feels like maybe instead of a romance hero suddenly forced into an action film, we should look at it as an action hero who was uncomfortably in a romance film? That kind of works! We saw in his first voice over how fearless and well he did in a fight. We also saw how loyal his friends were to him, how much he desired independence, how he never really felt like any potential career made sense for him.
And now, 4 years after Manjima was shot, here he is, suddenly appearing as a police inspector!!!! He found his purpose in life, what he was always meant to do. This whole film was just a lead up to his ultimate destiny.
And, oh yes, we finally have his name revealed, the thing Manjima was always teasing him about learning but he would never tell her: Rajnikanth!