That was a very elaborate process! Getting to the theater from work, buying the ticket in advance so it wouldn’t be sold out, and on and on. But, worth it! Not as good as the best Ratnam film, but far better than the worst (Kadal).
Part of Mani Ratnam’s talent is in casting. Going all the way back to Mouna Ragam, putting together a love triangle with a charming handsome young actor, a delicate small actress, and a tall awkward unattractive older actor. They were brilliant in their roles, but it was also about the audience being surprised by this particular constellation of stars.
That talent doesn’t quite work here. Half of the film is perfectly cast, and half is passable but not impressive. And it keeps the film, for me, from truly soaring. Jyothika is a amazing, so good she makes everyone else look bad. The only one to match her is Jayasudha. And Vijay Sethupathi and Arvind Swamy are right behind them. Slightly different roles than they have played before, with interesting little hand gestures, dialogue delivery, other moments. It’s interesting watching them, exciting. But Prakash Raj, he is playing essentially a “Prakash Raj” part, nothing new there. Arun Vijay, he is good and entertaining, but I didn’t notice much of a difference between how he played the role here and how he played his part in Yennai Arindhaal. Just nothing new there. Aishwarya Rajesh, she was fine but literally had nothing to do. Even one of her scenes shown in the trailer (talking with Jyothika) was cut. Aditi Rao Hydari is similar, fine with what she had but she didn’t have much. I could keep going down the list, but you get the idea. Nothing real new or exciting here. No problems necessarily, just nothing that makes you sit up and take notice.
Okay, one problem. I kept trying to decide if Silambarasan was purposefully playing his role slightly drunk or stoned or something all the time, and I finally landed on no, he’s just a bad actor. Even in his greatest emotional moments, it was just bleh. I didn’t mind him in Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada, his look wasn’t quite right but I had no problems with his performance. However, looking back, I am seeing that the point of the character there was his calm attitude towards everything. Which could also be a way of hiding a lack of interest/ability in emoting as an actor. I just did not see the live spark in him that I enjoyed in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa.
(Compare the anger and passion and love and everything else shown in this song, not to mention how well he moves, to the way he barely manages to move his face while delivering lines, and can hardly handle one foot chase in this movie)
It’s not just the actors, it’s the characters. Mani Ratnam is the master at bringing us into the lives of our characters, giving us those little “real” moments that are so powerful. But in this case, he avoids that. The moments of love are all about sex and power and not about gentleness. The children are barely acknowledged. There is little softness here.
It feels like, as he ages, Ratnam is increasingly losing his ability to forgive those who do not live up to his standards. He has always has a bit of a judgmental God attitude towards his characters. If we look back at his previous gangster films, no matter how sympathetic and human Kamal Haasan and Mammootty were as characters, ultimately they were brought to justice for their sins. Even Rajinikanth had his own lessor punishment. It was the sinless Arvind Swamy and Nassar who had everything they could want at the end of the films. And Abhishek in Yuva, the ultimate of Ratnam’s sympathetic sinners, you wish he could be happy but you also know it is for the best that he ends badly. Even Abhishek again in Guru, he breaks the law in his own small way and he is punished for it, not totally but he does suffer.
This film, if it is the culmination of his gangster trilogy, brings that to the ultimate. These men are criminals and every time Ratnam comes close to forgiving them, to letting their humanity buy back their evil, he pulls away. The house is not the big old stone mansion of Nayakan, it is a cold new glass and concrete mansion. The friendships are not the loving detailed trusting relationship of Mammootty and Rajinikanth. And the motivations are certainly not the desperation and misery of Kamal, Rajinikanth, or even Abhishek in Yuva. It’s an odd film, because it feels like we keep just missing those moments, the moments of emotion and love, we come in right after them instead, or before, cutting away just in time to avoid anything sympathetic. And also to avoid anything that solved the central mysteries, the questions of who was responsible for what.
(Silambarasan almost has this moment, but Ratnam cuts it short, ends the love song before it can really start)
I found myself watching the film in order to solve the puzzle of it, my mind was involved more than my heart. Except for Jyothika and Jayasudha. None of the other characters really made me care what happened to them, made me think of them as real people.
The resolution to the puzzle is brilliant and makes the film worthwhile retroactively. But it still does not give it a heart. For myself, I would rather watch Iruvar again, with all the odd plotting and flawed construction but the big heart at the center of it and two characters you truly come to love, than this perfect little puzzle box of a film that holds no heart at the center of it.