I think I may have finally figured out what I like about Gautham Menon films. It took a while, because they seem like the kind of film I shouldn’t like, perfect heroes and opaque heroines. But with this film, I think I have cracked it. Oh, and also, Ajith looks goooo-ooooood with grey hair! Which is neither here nor there, but I felt it should be acknowledged.
You ready? You ready for my brilliant realization? Gautham Menon’s super manly heroes are manly in a way that fits with both male and female fantasies. There is no “testosterone poisoning”, as it were.
And so I can appreciate this “perfect hero” who has no character growth over the course of the film because he starts out at a 10, because he is as much a wish-fulfillment for me as a romantic hero would be. Normally the action hero is wish-fulfillment for someone who is like me but not quite. Like, I can enjoy the action scenes and the beat downs and all that, I can even be on his side in the narrative, but I’m not gonna fall in love with the guy. And if the film is structured in such a way that it only works if I do fall in love with him, I’m not going to fall in love with the film either.
Let me give some examples. Dabangg, for instance, I don’t identify with or even “love” Salman in that. But I feel like the film kind of knows this, it has little moments of winking to the audience and saying “yes, we know this is stupid and over the top, don’t take it or the hero too seriously”. You can completely enjoy the film without falling passionately in love with the guy.
But on the other hand, something like Singham 2 (not 1, that was a little cleverer) only makes sense if you are all in on this hero, if you thinking “yeah, cops are noble and criminals are horrible and I believe in absolutely everything our hero is doing and want to be just like him.” And so the film didn’t work for me, because I didn’t love that character. I liked him, just like I liked him in Singham 1, but I didn’t love him in every way, and I resented the film for trying to make me love him, or expecting that I would.
Now, this movie, this movie expects me to love our hero and believe he is the bestest best at everything he ever does. And I do! I love him completely, no reservations. I support absolutely everything he does while onscreen. I kept waiting for that moment of disappointment, and it never came, he is exactly what I want start to finish.
And apparently I am not alone, judging by how successful Gautham Menon’s films have been. There is a desire for a hero like this, who is good in a fight and the women fall in love with him and all those usual “hero” things, but he is also a respectful lover and caring to the women in his life and just generally, for lack of a better word, “nice”.
To drag us back to the point and talk about Yennai Arindhaal, in this movie if you removed the whole “cop” plot and just introduced me to this man as a single father with salt and pepper hair who is confident in his own masculinity and doesn’t feel the need to come on to every woman in sight, I would still love him! The cop stuff, it doesn’t detract, but it doesn’t really add on either. He starts out as a nice guy, and then everything else comes after. Which is actually what happens in Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada . We have a really nice guy (sleeps on the couch so his little sister can have friends over, has a plan for his life, is a good friend to his friends) with a really nice love story (just likes talking to the girl), and then everything else comes after that.
This film, it’s more kind of back and forth. Action, non-action, Action, non-action. But the two sides fit together, both are good.
Speaking of sides fitting together, the male and female characters are so wonderfully matched! Trisha plays one of the heroines, and is wonderful as always. I am seeing that she is working on another Gautham Menon film now? I’ll be fascinated to see how it turns out, I found her character so difficult in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, and then I saw her in a bunch of other stuff and realized that it wasn’t her acting that was at fault or anything like that, Gautham wanted her character to be like that, and she performed it perfectly. And in this film, it’s a totally different kind of character, and once again she manages to make an impression, and in only a few scenes.
We actually open with our other heroine, Anushka (Shetty, not Sharma), and stay with her instead of our hero for a good 20 minutes. I was really surprised to see that she was playing this role, especially after reading a plot summary and knowing it would be a fairly small part. But it needs to be an impactful part, someone you immediately connect with and know has a strong personality. A distinctive personality, someone who isn’t just “Trisha 2.0” (since her character comes in between), but is a person in her own right, a different kind of woman.
And then there’s our third “heroine”, Baby Anikha. Who is CUUUUUUUTE!!!! And a very good little actress, although they also used her well. She just had to say a few lines, and make some simple expressions (“sad” “happy” “laughing”), and that sold her part of the story as much as was needed. No failed attempt to make her do any more than that, to be more than just a natural happy little girl. They didn’t even age her up that much, even though it is supposed to be age 6 to 12. Just changed her hair and clothes a little, and we could buy the age difference.
Huh. Writing it out like that, no wonder I like this film and he feels like a different kind of action hero! This is an action guy who is surrounded by women. And not the usual lame “love interest” kind of women, but interesting characters, more interesting than the other cops he sees at work, and with more time spent on them. It doesn’t feel like “let’s mark time with a love song until he can get back to solving the mystery”, it feels like “let’s make this at work scene as short as possible so we can get back to the love song”. And all of this without damaging our hero’s identity as a cop, you can be a responsible brilliant brave supercop and still have a work-life balance.
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This is one of those films where the plot summary really doesn’t tell you how good it is. It sounds like the craziest mish-mosh of twists, but it all makes sense when you watch it, it’s just the story of this one particular man and how he got to where he is in the moment that we meet him, all the influences (mainly female) that brought him there.
And the important thing is that this whole story is being told to another woman, he is picking and choosing what is important for her to understand about him. If that makes sense? Not like he is lying, but like he is saying editing out the unimportant parts of his life. Which just makes me like this character more! Because the unimportant parts are mostly work and action related, it’s the relationships he had that really mattered.
Let me back up and explain how this happens. We start with Anushka (again, Shetty not Sharma). She is a confident happy successful NRI businesswoman. We first see her casually blowing through a “first meeting” her parents have set up so she can get back to her job, and spending time with her friends. The first song opens with her singing karaoke about needing a man, a real man. And we see that she is a character who really does need a “real man”. She is successful in her work, she is loving to her sister (?) who just had a baby, she has a lot going on in her life and is handling it all expertly. She needs someone who can handle all of that too, who won’t be threatened by her success, who can handle her responsibilities and more so, someone different from the pallid kind of guy her parents were trying to set her up with.
Enter Ajith! He sits next to her on the flight to India, and she immediately notices him as “the handsomest man I have ever seen”. And I can buy that! Ajith isn’t really “normal” handsome, he doesn’t have regular features or anything like that. But he has really striking eyes, and in this film at least, a really striking confident attitude. Just one look is enough to see that, and to see that he is exactly the kind of “real man” Anushka needs in her life.
And Anushka is the kind of woman he needs! Someone who will batter through his defenses and insist on meeting him for coffee, even after (especially after!) she looks him up online and finds out he is a hero cop. And then at their coffee date, suddenly, goons appear and start fighting, and Ajith springs into action and saves Anushka. And while they are driving away, he explains that he used to be a cop, isn’t any more, and he will tell her how it happened.
And so this whole film, at least the flashback part, is partially information she needs, and also partly kind of a love story? You know Othello? The play Omkara is from? This is how Othello and Desdemona fell in love, “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I lov’d her that she did pity them”. And so Ajith is telling Anushka about his life, the important information she needs to understand why they are in danger now, but also the sadness and pain of his life, and she loves him the more because of that, and he loves her (maybe sort of it is unclear but we can kind of tell) for how she understands his pain.
And what is the information Ajith wants to give her? He starts with his childhood, when his honest kind father was killed for daring to stand up to a gangster and Ajith began to dream of vengeance, or destroying the men who destroyed his father. By the way, SUPER DISTRACTING that Nassar plays the father. I keep waiting for him to turn evil, thanks to Bahubali.
And then we leap past childhood to first meeting with his nemesis, the man who attacked them, “Victor”, Arun Vijay, who does a really wonderful job in this film, but is also very distracting because I keep waiting for his hair to dry and it never does. That is, start to finish, he has this odd “wet hair look” kind of drippy hair do.
Anyway, Ajith and Arun met in jail, and at this point both Anushka and the audience are not sure if Ajith is truly a cop or a criminal. He helps Arun escape, joins his gang, and then at the last minute he reveals himself as a cop undercover in order to capture Arun’s boss, a fallen priest (I love the little touches like this that give depth to the narrative).
And then we watch the rise of “hero cop” Ajith. Only, how can I say this right, all those moments of heroism aren’t there for the audience to go “oooo, he is so cool and heroic, I love him!”, they are there for the audience (and Anushka) to understand how much being a cop was part of his identity, how little fear he ever had, how little doubt. So we can fully appreciate who he is now, today.
The parts we see in detail, that’s the relationship stuff. While doing a stake-out/planned “encounter”, Ajith is undercover as a rickshaw driver. Trisha tries to hire him, he gently turns her away, then notices she is in labor and leaves the stake out in order to take her to the hospital. All of this is filmed in a loving slow motion style, this is what matters to him, not all the fight scenes and the action (and even the “encounter” they are setting up is to kill a rapist, the kind of criminal I can get behind killing!).
And we see in loving detail all their meetings after that. Two years later, he meets her outside the divorce court and sees her daughter for the first time. That night, he attends her dance performance and compliments her afterwards. And then there is a magical period of dinners, coffee, friendship, years go by. And finally after her daughter’s birthday party (so, on the anniversary of the day they first met), they dance in the rain and kiss.
And all of this is the important stuff. Not the fight scenes and the criminals, but this kind strong woman who has invited him into her life, and changed his life. The job, that’s just something he does, it’s not what defines him.
And let’s take a moment for how remarkable this heroine is as well! Her husband is dismissed with a comment about being grateful to her lawyer for helping her to get free and, later, a mention that she can’t even remember his face any more. She teaches dance for the love of it, raises her daughter successfully on her own (no moment when she “needs” a man). We can believe that Ajith would be happy just being her friend and slowly gaining her trust for years and years, not just because Ajith is AWESOME, but because Trisha is so wonderful, of course he would be happy just being with her. Not just wonderful, but also believably flawed. Or, not flawed, but damaged. Of course she would be slow to love and slow to trust. And of course she would think it best to keep it simple, have a friendship and a romantic relationship, but not expect marriage.
And again, Ajith is AWESOME. We don’t need a big explanation for why he lets her take the lead right up to marriage, and then for the first time takes control. We know that he knows that she will be nervous about trusting another man and unhappy if he makes a move. And we know that he knows that she will never consider proposing marriage, thinking of herself as having been “damaged”, or not having the right to ask. Which is why he does it.
Oh man, if I wasn’t in love with Ajith’s character already, I would be after this proposal. Understanding her hesitancy to ask another man to be Baby Anikha’s father, and not just saying “I will love her like she was my own”, but saying “she is my own, has been my own since the moment I first saw her, and I don’t need/want any other children”. And proving it too! Giving a speech about their whole life together as a family, how they will put her name down for the good middle school, and save money so they can send her abroad for further studies, it’s clear that he isn’t just saying this, he actually has thought it out and is excited about this life they will have together. Trisha says yes, and I would have said yes too!
That fine line of Anikha being his-not-his is very delicate in this film, and it’s one of those things that the plot synopsis makes sound stupid, and then I watch it and it all fits. She is “his” in that he loves her like a daughter. But at the same time she is not “his” in that they haven’t really shared a life together. During that whole slow building of a relationship with Trisha, she was there, but she was Trisha’s, not his. Trisha was the one she ran to, Trisha was the one who picked her up. Which, yeah, that’s how it is. There’s a line, even the adult you feel really comfortable with, if they aren’t your parent, if they aren’t there every morning and every night, they aren’t really “yours”. And you aren’t really “theirs”.
That’s why it is so important that Trisha is killed the night before their wedding. He has been preparing to be a father, to take on this role for Anikha. But he wasn’t there yet, it would start tomorrow. And then it does start tomorrow, but in a different way. Trisha dies, and Ajith is the only one left to care for her daughter. Suddenly, Anikha is his and he is hers and there is no one else that matters in the world.
In almost every action film, I have that moment of losing connection with the characters, because their response to an attack is “ooo, revenge!’, not “ooo, let’s take a moment and make sure everyone is safe and okay”. But not here! No, Trisha dies, and Ajith (in voice over), explicitly talks about how he was trapped, because Anikha needed him, and he was the only one who could help her. And therefore he had to let vengeance go.
And he really let it go. Not in the kind of “staying up late looking at my board of mystery solving” letting it go, no, he quite his job and took her with him to travel India, away from everything else. Which, again, sounded ridiculous when I was just reading the synopsis, but watching the film it all made sense. It needed to be clear that she really really was his only priority. Not that he was forcing himself to care for her out of a sense of duty while he wanted to be out tracking down the bad guys, no, he didn’t care about anything else any more, he was happy just being her father. And he returned to Chennai just because he had promised her mother to sign her up for the good local school when she turned 12, not for any other reason.
Okay, now I have to talk about the villain. One of my favorite things about this movie is that neither our hero nor our villain ever really see each other clearly. Our hero lets the villain get away, way at the beginning, because he had become his friend while undercover, he thought he was “good” at heart. And our villain, years later, assumes our hero has returned to town in order to track him down, to take revenge. And neither of them ever fully grasps the other one! Straight through to the end.
Right, Ajith is back in Chennai (I think? Or Hyderabad), and an old friend begs him for help tracking down his kidnapped daughter. Ajith doesn’t want to do it, or not want to do it, it’s just not something in his life any more. Until Anikha brings him his police shoes, giving him her permission and making it clear that he is still doing it “for her”, not for himself.
And then we learn the big bad thing. And once again, it is a big bad thing I can fully be against! There’s no macho us versus them here, this is just straight up bad. Arun Vijay, our villain, and his wife, are kidnapping street children (all girls) for their organs, killing them after taking the organs, and dumping the bodies. Yes, this is a thing that should not happen! You should absolutely try to stop this Ajith!!!
And now we are back to the present day. To learn that it was never really about Ajith, it was always about Anushka. She is the latest target of the gang, not because of anything special about her, but simply because she is the rare match for a wealthy heart patient. And Ajith is protecting her, not because she is beautiful and brilliant and so on, but because she is the target.
What I love about this is what it does for their relationship. There is a clear line between Ajith’s willingness to tell her his life story, Anushka’s starry eyes over him, and so on, and the danger they are in. This isn’t “police commissioner’s daughter and noble cop fall in love”, this is “two random strangers meet and fall in love unrelated to the situation they are in”.
My favorite part of their “romance” is when Anushka has dinner with him and Anikha. She is so clearly on the outside looking in. In most films, they would go the route of having her leaping in to help in the kitchen, immediately feeling like she was always there. But this film does something different. Anikha and Ajith don’t need her, she needs them. She is jealous of watching them cook dinner, watching them be a family together. But just like Ajith had to earn his place in Trisha’s life, she has to earn her place in their life together.
Right, and then plot starts happening again. And, if you want, you can see everything that happens after this as Anushka proving that she has earned that place. Arun is coming for her, Ajith is guarding her. And then Arun kidnaps Anikha to put on pressure. And Anushka, when it comes down to it, insists on letting herself be taken by Arun in order to save Anikha, knowing she might die.
Think of it this way. In one moment, Anushka is proving that she loves this little girl enough to die for her. And that she trusts Ajith to save her no matter what. And Ajith rewards that trust, he does save her. And Anikha rewards her love, at the end of the film we see that Anikha and Anushka are the ones who have become close, skyping every night, planning her birthday celebration without even involving Ajith. And Ajith rewards her trust, finally suggesting a coffee date.
You can see this movie as a cop story, the noble man who joins the police in order to avenge his father. Who finds his nemesis in a criminal he befriends. Who tries to get away but keeps getting sucked back in until he finally defeats his nemesis.
Or, you could see it the way I see it. A man who lost his father and his family when he was young. Who found a new family with Trisha and Anikha and slowly was rewarded with their trust. And his opposite part, a young woman who doesn’t think she wants a family, doesn’t think there will ever be a family she will fit into (there is a small moment of sadness when she holds her sister’s baby), who finds the perfect family for herself with him. And the “happy ending” isn’t anything to do with killing the bad guy, it’s all about the 3 of them finding each other and forming that new family.