Karuppan seems to be made almost with the same sort of languor that you imagine village life to be. Fair enough, the film’s about a family in the village, after all. This indolence in story development would be unbearable in a bad film. But Karuppan has heart… and Vijay Sethupathi. In one scene, you have Karuppan’s mute mother (never mind how underwritten the character is) sitting merrily on a swing. Another film may have remained content with showing this, but Karuppan goes a step further and shows you a quick shot of a young girl on that swing, to capture the nostalgic joy this woman feels. Mind you, she isn’t even central to the proceedings. That’s how much time Panneerselvam has on his hands. It’s never more evident than in the mandatory hero-and-friend-get-drunk-in-a-TASMAC scene. Karuppan and his friend/uncle (Singampuli, who’s a riot) have enough time to mime to songs like Naan yen pirandhen, Yaarukaaga, Nethu Rathiri, and the cursory Ajith and Vijay songs. Were these bits essential? Absolutely not. But somewhere, you begin to like Karuppan for not being in a tearing hurry to get somewhere. It’s unusual for a village film having a star for its hero.
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya, Pasupathi, Bobby Simha
But you do want it to get somewhere eventually, to do something with its one-note, love-struck villain, Kathir (Bobby Simha with a single expression to convey cunning). But Panneerselvam gets too busy, too involved in establishing the cutesy relationship between Karuppan and Anbu (Tanya) to remember to return to the story on time. The Karuppan-Anbu relationship is another version of the good-wife-reforms-(potentially) alcoholic-wastrel trope. Another actor in place of Vijay Sethupathi may have ended up making all the idle talk unbearable, but he constantly keeps you surprised. He’s calling his wife, Mr. Anbu. He’s being playful around her. He’s even singing and dancing along to old songs. The actor seems free in a way that a star generally isn’t allowed to be.
Karuppan’s also constantly covering its tracks. Anbu’s brother, Maayi (Pasupathi) pledges her for marriage in a bet that he loses to Karuppan. She’s married away because in her words, “annan thala guniyardha paaka mudiyadhu”. But the lack of consent is a problem in such a love story, and so, the film sneakily introduces an ill-fitting flashback scene that shows you that Anbu had already fallen for Karuppan in a chance encounter. Maayi also is portrayed as a decent man, and no decent man pledges his sister at a Jallikattu competition; so the director conveniently gets Maayi revealing that he had already found Karuppan to be a decent man before the competition.
The biggest disappointment for me was the absence of any real courage from Anbu once she becomes a pawn in the tussles of the men — Karuppan, Kathir, Maayi — who all claim to love her. She’s originally shown to be a feisty character. Her first meeting with Karuppan has her slapping him. She’s later shown threatening him with a sickle. For a film set in a village, it’s also heartwarming when she’s shown riding a Bullet, and driving a jeep. But all this promise doesn’t really come to fruition.
In a sense, Karuppan is a bit like her too. It develops slowly, painstakingly, and just when it really needs to take off, it doesn’t. The songs are a dampener, but the weak, underdeveloped villains (Bobby Simha, Sharath Lohitashwa) are bigger enemies of the story. For such an obsessive lover, you’re shown way too little of Kathir to try to understand his plight, to relate to his pain. He keeps disappearing in the story for long periods. After instigating enmity between Maayi and Karuppan, he’s nowhere to be seen as Anbu becomes pregnant with twins, Karuppan becomes a farmer, and for an entire season from sowing to harvest. In a better film, you could wonder if Kathir was probably waiting for his time to harvest, but really, it seems counter-productive to let a conflict potentially die down. Worst of all, for such a cunning, quiet villain, he ends up stupidly revealing his evil intent without any coercion. His parting line that’s supposed to perhaps move you, only ends up as a joke. I wonder if Panneerselvam took so long to get to that point because he knew how it was ending.