I already put up my “no spoilers” review, this is the SPOILERS version. For people who have already seen it, or can’t see it in theaters but want to know what it is like. Or just want to know how it was without spending 2 hours of their lives on the film. Because, although I want to tell you all to buy tickets and support Nivin, I really can’t in good conscience recommend that. It’s not the best use of your time.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Shraddha Srinath is a reporter who is angry because she spent a week researching a shooting and now it has been published as just a tiny write up in the paper. She confronts her editor, who argues that it was just a silly shooting in the middle of the holiday celebrations in the fishing village, but she says there is more to it than that. And the film proceeds from the perspective of the multiple witnesses she interviewed and their stories, all of which slowly fall in to place. It starts with a MacGuffin, Elaango Kumaravel caught a log in his net, and that night he dropped it to find a beautiful statue inside, “she”. He contacted a friend to sell it, got an advance, but then it was stolen during the deal and he never got more than his advance, leaving him in debt. The Macguffin is really pointless though, it began years ago when two boys, Nivin and Raj Bharath, got in to a fight with some other boys over a game. Raj accidentally killed another boy and he and Nivin both ran away, but Nivin was caught and went to jail while Raj escaped to Calcutta and started a new life. Richie came out of jail, estranged from his Priest father Prakash Raj (of course), and ended working for the local gangster G. K. Reddy. Years later, Raj Bharath came back to town (having stolen the Macguffin from his out of town gangster bosses, not realizing it was a statue that would be hard to unload) and everyone expected Nivin to kill him in revenge, including Raj Bharath.
Meanwhile, Natarajan Subramanian is a mechanic who works on Elaango’s fleet of fishing boats. He came to town after he accidentally caused the death of a friend back in his last village. He is in love with the sister of fisherman Elaango Kumaravel. Elaango borrowed money from G.K. Reddy and Nivin is putting pressure on him to pay it back. At the end of the film, Nivin has forgiven Raj, surprising everyone. But Raj is still trying to outsmart him, leading to a shoot out in which Nivin is forced to kill Raj in self-defense. Natarajan has been following them, since Elaango is missing. He doesn’t realize that Nivin beat up Elaango and let him go hours earlier. He finds blood, and a bullet hole, thinks Elaango was the one killed, and goes to find Nivin and kills him in revenge for a crime he didn’t even commit. And Nivin’s best friend and assistant in beat downs, Aadukalam Murugadoss, kills Natarajan in revenge for killing Nivin.
The point of the film is that Richie/Nivin is a tragic figure. He was wrongfully arrested to begin with, then unable to get decent work after release, and heartbroken at the lack of faith shown in him by his father. His adopted father G.K. Reddy doesn’t trust him either, giving Aadukalam Murugadoss the job of tracking down Raj, thinking Nivin will surely kill him. But Nivin disproves them all, finding Raj, and then forgiving him. No one can understand his greatness, still. Raj keeps fighting, thinking Nivin will kill him someday. And Natarajan thinks Nivin must have lost control and killed Elaango, and therefore kills him in vengeance for a crime he didn’t do. “Richie” is the title and the poster and all of that because it all revolves around his complicated fascinating greatness.
But, it doesn’t, not really. Nivin is charismatic, but this isn’t the best role for him, and it isn’t a role written for him. Besides that, it’s a true ensemble piece. We care about Nivin, but we care about the other characters too. And therefore the film falls apart, because we have to care about Nivin MORE than the other characters.
This is one of those movies where it feels like someone outlined a plot idea, but then never bothered to fill in the details. So, for instance, “Natarajan is consumed with guilt over the death of his friend, which drove him to come to this town, and he feels overly grateful for the one connection he was able to make in this new place, with Elaango. Therefore, he overreacts when he thinks Nivin has killed Elaango.” But, see, it doesn’t quite work out in practice. We have a lovely scene in which Natarajan paints Elaango for the tiger dance, an intimate moment of trust between the two men. But that’s it. Besides that scene, we never get anything that really sells their relationship as something special for Natarajan. Especially since we see him spend almost equal time with Elaango’s sister, who he is in love with, and more time with the little boy that follows him around and helps him repair motors. It feels contrived that he would break all boundaries for Elaango, when that means leaving behind two other people who he seems to have an equal connection to.
I can come up with lots of explanations, that his love for Elaango’s sister lead him to feel greater responsibility for Elaango, that he was blind to the love of the little boy just as Prakash Raj was blind to Nivin’s love for him and Nivin was blind to Aadukalam’s love and so on. But the point is, I shouldn’t have to come up with those explanations! It should be shown in the film, shown in a way that I can understand and will make sense to me, these character’s actions should feel inevitable, not contrived.
Natarajan and Elaango’s relationship, that’s one of the better ones! There are other relationships which don’t even get one scene to explain them. We are introduced to G.K. Reddy with a talking head in which he says that Nivin isn’t “like” a son to him, he is his son. And then we get one scene with him and Nivin in which he just kind of orders him to do something and pats his head. None of that depth is there. We are supposed to see the son of a Priest who has chosen his father’s opposite number because he gives him love. G.K. Reddy is supposed to be some fierce terrifying force in the area. And we get one tiny scene in which he makes no impression at all.
It’s the women where the plot fails most. I think probably, generally, the director was cutting scenes and characters and so on. And he was just less interested in the 3 female characters, so they got cut the most. Our narrator, Shraddha Sinha the reporter, she is set up to provide wry outsider commentary. In her first scene, she seems ambitious and tough, only interested in getting her story printed. In her next, she gently pulls out information from the witnesses, giving a bit of a cynical outsiders perspective in her reaction shots. And then she more or less disappears!
This is supposed to be the important contrasting character to Nivin. The only one who fully understood him, who took a picture of him when he was first arrested and she was just a little girl. Who is able to dig through all the stories and contrasting accounts and see him clearly. We are seeing this story through her eyes, that is what lets us understand and appreciate him. Only, instead, we lose track of that and it becomes the director’s eyes that are showing us everything, she is just another character, a half-forgotten one who pops up at random moments.
The same is true for the other two women, they are established as important driving forces of the narrative, and then left behind. Raj’s mother, her loneliness and misery is what drives him to return. And then that loneliness and misery is forgotten in the rest of the film, she turns into just an irritating plot device, turning up to whine and drop secret information in the wrong ears, and then disappearing again. Same with Elaango’s sister. She is supposed to be the one true love of Natarajan, and yet there is a lot more time spent on Elaango and Natarajan’s relationship, than on hers. Heck, notice how I am identifying characters? “Elaango’s sister”, “Raj’s mother”. That’s all they are, they aren’t anything on their own.
The female characters seem to have a slightly harder time of it, but all the characters have that same lack, that same shallowness. How does Prakash Raj feel about his son? Is he ashamed, upset, conflicted, doubting his own decisions? I don’t know! I also don’t know how he ended up being a Priest with a son. I assume he was married before entering the priesthood (not unheard of). Or possibly he is supposed to be Anglican, but he sure seemed Catholic. I mean, the fact that I don’t even know something so basic about a character, rather he turned his back on his family to join religious orders, or if he was part of a minority within a minority community, that’s a bad sign for the ability of this film to explore this character.
The one character who is fully explored is Nivin, our centerpiece. Misunderstood, sacrificing, troubled, needing love, all those things. While the “bad” boy escaped and his mother waited for him for years, Nivin’s father couldn’t be bothered to visit him in jail. Nivin was feared and hated by the community because he found that fear easier to handle than love would have been. And he used that fear to protect others from having to become what he is. We learn that his one friend, the one person who understands him fully, Aadukalam, is the boy he protected while they were both in juvenile detention. Who saw the worst of the world, and how Nivin was able to withstand it and still be kind to a weaker boy. Early on, Aadukalam lets Nivin know that he has been assigned to track down Raj. It seems like a terrible mistake, Raj is afraid of Nivin, even G.K. Reddy is afraid of what Nivin will do. But Aadukalam knows him better than they do, and he knows that Nivin will rise above their expectations, will keep control of himself and do the right thing. Nivin’s story of two boys, “dash” and “dash-dash”, who get into a fight because dash thinks that dash-dash is insulting him, when actually he is just greeting him in a friendly fashion, that is Nivin’s whole life. He is trying to make friends, to be good. And no one expects it of him.
There are all kinds of nice touches to his character, like the over-sized holster for his tiny gun. The beard sunglasses that hide his eyes so he can feel protected from the world. The little Saint he carries with him to remind himself to forgive. This is a full fledged good character. But he can’t really shine if he doesn’t have any other full fledged good characters to play off of. It’s one person moving through the world alone, no one else around to define him. Not the best.