Happy Thursday! I wanted to watch a deep good classic interesting Tamil film, but none of those are streaming (Gautham Menon, what is up with your films? Why are they all in some kind of strange streaming rights limbo?). So instead I watched Theri. Which is……not deep. But oh so very very fun!!!!
This is maybe my third Vijay film? And they have all been the same type, big fun action movies with multiple heroines and evil villains and a message of Vijay being basically perfect and winning every fight and so on and so forth. And I’m not going to complain about that! I love movies like that. But I do wonder if Vijay has a wider range than what I have seen so far. I suspect he does, because it seems like he couldn’t have reached this high stature of stardom without proving his ability in multiple genres.
Although even the big action movie genre has its own particular challenges. Dancing, for instance. Vijay does great dance numbers, not just that he can do the movies, but he really sells them. They feel joyful and happy and magical because of how he attacks them and makes us feel like we are dancing with him. He’s also good at the non-action bits. He makes you enjoy his flirtation with the heroine (who inevitably falls for him at first sight or close to it), and he makes you enjoy his kindness to his family, and all the rest of it. Yes, he is a perfect man who overcomes every challenge just by trying really hard, but he makes the process of waiting for his inevitable triumph enjoyable. And of course the fight scenes are excellent, this film features a finale fight scene starting with Vijay tied up in a chair and slowly expanding as he frees himself.
What I really appreciated about the three Vijay films I have seen, Thuppaki and Mersal and this, is that they didn’t waste Vijay and his talents, but they also didn’t rely on them entirely. The heroines were fun and interesting and had personalities. The plot was complex and well structured. They were good movies, even without Vijay. He just added on and made them better. Too often in hero films, either it goes so far in the direction of leaning on the hero that there is no film left without him (Race 3), or they waste him and too much time is spent on the plot and other parts instead of the Star that the audience has come to see (Spyder). This film, and the two other Vijay films I have seen, are the perfect balance. Vijay shines bright, but doesn’t quite throw everything else into shadow.
Speaking of which, heroines! I am increasingly fond of Amy Jackson. I know she isn’t doing her own dialogue (Raveena Ravi, same voice over artist who dubbed for her in I and will dub for her in 2.0), but she has a really nice energy onscreen and can hold her own against a hero. And she throws herself into her roles without embarrassment, if she is supposed to be shocked or in love or whatever else, she really does it. Most of all, she feels natural. I don’t have a sense of a model going through a series of poses when she is onscreen, I feel like I am watching a real person reacting like a real person would.
But it still makes sense that Samantha has the author backed role between the two. She has long speeches and big dramatic moments that Amy doesn’t, and I am fine with that. Amy is good, but she’s not that good. Samantha’s heroine manages to be a match for Vijay without turning into an action heroine, or a nagging wife (the two usual options for the heroine in an action movie). And a lot of that is due to Samantha’s performance, what could come off as immature impulsiveness and stubbornness instead looks like strength and confidence.
Atlee, the director, had only made one previous film and that was a love story, Raja Rani. There is a stereotype of these action films being lazy and silly and laughable, but making a good action film means making a very intelligent film. The plot has to fit together perfectly, the pacing has to be structured so the audience never gets bored, and the hero has to be highlighted by contrasts with other strong characters. Plus the fight scenes and structure have to be original, not to mention the songs. Better to hire a good director/writer who had made a good film in a different genre, than someone who had made mediocre films in the same genre.
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We open in the present. Vijay is a doting silly lazy pony-tailed father to his daughter Baby Nainika. He sleeps in and makes her late for school every morning, embarrassing her in front of her favorite teacher Amy Jackson. They live in an idyllic Kerala town (donate to the Kerala relief fund here) and Vijay runs a bakery with his cook/assistant Rajendran. Slowly and happily, Vijay and Amy start a romance. She notices him when he drops off Nainika, Nainika tries to throw them together, and then Amy gives Nainika a ride one day and they get into an accident in her car. Vijay is furious, yells at Amy, only to learn that she was injured herself protecting Nainika. He apologizes and they have A Moment, but then he learns that she filed a police report against the goons who drove them off the road. He immediately takes her to the police station to withdraw the complaint, and the police officers there seem to recognize him and call him by another name, but go along with it when Vijay declares he was born and raised in Kerala (which Amy knows is not true since he does not speak Malayalam). Amy is suspicious, and the goons he filed the case against are angry. They show up at his house in a rain storm and attack him, he fights them all off while Amy watches, and then the film goes into flashback.
In flashback, he was a hero cop doing hero cop things with his loyal sergeant Rajendran at his side. But he can’t seem to make a marriage work, his mother keeps introducing him to girls and they keep turning him down. He sees some goons at a traffic light forcing children to beg and beats them up. He goes to the hospital to follow up and meets Samantha, a doctor, who scolds him for hurting the criminals until he reveals how they were hurting children and she has a change of heart. She immediately arranges a date with him that night and proposes. It moves very fast and very easily because they are both eager to be married. But during their courtship, Vijay is brought in on a missing persons case that ends with the discovery of a young woman who was brutally raped and injured and finally dies, after identifying the son of a powerful politician (J. Mahendran) as her attacker. Vijay, in response to the young woman calling him “brother” before her death and the pleas for vengeance of her father, and knowing that the son will never be brought to prosecution, tortures and kills him. Mahendran realizes it was him and attacks during Vijay’s first meeting with Samantha’s family. Samantha’s father objects to the match on the grounds of it being too dangerous, Samantha refuses to give him up, and the threat of her father’s objections is overcome, they are married with much pomp and circumstance. And soon after have a baby. All is happy in the household, until suddenly in the middle of a conversation, Samantha is shot! Mahendran and his men storm in, he kills Vijay’s mother and leaves the baby to drown in a bathtub, then shoots and beats Vijay. Samantha manages to wake up and drag herself upstairs despite her injuries, saves the baby, and then brings it to Vijay and demands that he honor her dying wish and turn over a new leaf, be a father first and not a cop.
Back in the present day, the fights with the local goons have gotten Vijay noticed and he has been tracked down by Mahendran again. Mahendran sets off an attack on Nainika’s school bus, Vijay saves her but other children are injured. He decides he can’t continue hiding and goes back to the city and begins performing acts of vigilante justice. Mahendran finds him again and kidnaps him and Nainika and Amy Jackson and Rejendran. But Vijay is not afraid, he effortlessly defeats all the bad guys and finally tells Mahendran that this was all about fathers. He is a good father to Nainika and will not let any harm come to her. But Mahendran was a bad father who raised a rapist and a murderer, and deserves to be punished. And then he kills him. The tag scene finds a much older looking Nainika riding a bike with Vijay in the mountains. He gets a courier just as they arrive at their coffee house and are greeted by Amy and Rajendran. The implication is, he lives his happy life with his family, and sometimes goes on missions of vengeance when the police need someone.
It’s a clever little plot, a solid familiar framework from Baashe to Dilwali to Jaanwar. A seemingly boring average man with his own little troubles, suddenly revealing an exciting backstory and previous life which was given up for the sake of a child. But what makes this version work so well is the details. For instance, in the present day Vijay confronts Amy at a hospital over causing harm to his child, only to be embarrassed when he learns she had acted with good intentions and in fact saved his child. In the past, Vijay first meets Samantha when she confronts him in a hospital corridor over causing harm, only to be embarrassed when she learns he had acted with good intentions and in fact saved a child. A less intelligent film would have cut between the two scenes, or obviously framed them in similar ways. But instead, this film leaves it to the audience to notice the connection on an almost subconscious level. And frames them in reverse chronological order, the power of the moment with Amy only becomes clear to the audience later when we see the scene with Samantha and realize that it must have been in Vijay’s mind. In a similar way, we open with Vijay making Nainika late for school because he slept in. It’s a running gag, mentioned again and again how he is late in the mornings. And then, many scenes later, we see Samantha as she dies requesting that he be the kind of father who sleeps late in the morning and smiles all day. Again, there is no flashback, nothing obvious, it is left to the audience to tie together the threads.
Even within the same time periods, there are similar little touches. In the flashback when the rape victim is dying, she calls Vijay her “brother” and Vijay responds deeply to that, it is a large part of the reason he avenges her. Later, when meeting with Samantha’s family, he tells her little sister that he would love to be her brother, he has always wanted a sister. Nainika in the present mentions a boy who teases her at school, later that little boy is one of the victims of the bus attack. And so on and so on. This is not a thoughtlessly crafted movie, this is a very thoughtful film.
Even if there isn’t much to it in terms of characters. Amy is the caring protective school teacher, Samantha is the confident young med student, Vijay is the perfect hero cop, mothers are mothers, humorous side kicks are humorous side kicks, and so on and so forth. It has the standard character types you would expect in an action film. And the standard plot, hero cop turned father in hiding turned vigilante. But it’s the details that make it work, that make it special.
Which brings me to Amy Jackson’s hair!!!! It is just so perfect. Short, because she is a modern working woman. But terribly unflattering because she isn’t glamorous, she is the nice school teacher who cares about her children. And Vijay’s love story with her isn’t about a physical attraction, but about a nice woman with a nice smile who cares about his daughter. It would be so easy to have messed that up, made her too pretty to be the dowdy school teacher, or too old-fashioned to be believable as the woman living alone and defending her school children. But instead they found the perfect wig and the perfect look and made her into someone that, in only a few scenes, felt like a worthy successor to Samantha.
Everything in this film is like that, carefully just right. It may not be the brilliant sensitive Tamil film I was looking for last night, but it was a wonderful example of what it was.