Maayavan: Fascinating in theory, faulty in execution

I couldn’t but get reminded of Bogan while watching Maayavan. I know, I know. Bogan’s idea of spirit possession is one that Tamil cinema has been familiar with for decades — we called it koodu vittu koodu paayardhu, a term that Maayavan draws attention to, too. But to get in the same year of Bogan’s release, another film that deals with ‘possession’, another film in which a cop is the protagonist… I found that to be striking. However, the explanation here for how possession occurs is so much more cooler, so much more in tune with these Black Mirror times, if you will. And no, don’t worry; this isn’t a spoiler. The film — specifically, the people its villain inhabits — makes this clear quite early on even if its protagonist Kumaran (Sundeep Kishan) and his team take a while to catch up.

While on its villain, let me state that some of his inexplicable choices in the film are a reason why Maayavan doesn’t turn out to be the super-smart thriller its premise deserved. He knows a policeman is onto him, and yet, makes no effort to hide some of his eccentric habits that he knows can land him in the cross-hairs. He almost taunts Kumaran at one point, an exhibition of megalomania that would be better-fitting for a character like Bogan than for the shy, geeky scientist in this film. You could say it’s perhaps because he feels an aura of invincibility, given his new invention, but if you saw the film, you’d know that his modus operandi isn’t particularly easy to accomplish. Among other things, it requires kidnap/manipulation, and violence. So, if I were him, I’d, even if not stay low, at least keep away from the police, especially when in times of great vulnerability, as he is towards the end.

Director: CV Kumar
Cast: Sundeep Kishan, Lavanya Tripathi, Jackie Shroff

The other problem plaguing this film is how manufactured and ill-at-ease some of the interactions between its characters are. Take the scene in which Kumaran meets psychiatrist Athirai (Lavanya Tripathi) for the first time. She asks if he saw a lot of films during his period of absence from work. He responds that being a policeman, he doesn’t like to download films. She doesn’t introduce him to the world of Netflix and Amazon as you and I likely will, and instead suggests that he buy some old films instead. It’s a vague chat that seems to go nowhere. And then, for no ostensible reason, they begin laughing. It all rings synthetic, and it’s a quality pervasive in this film. In the very next scene, Kumaran is hanging out with some policemen who are happily drinking at work. They all get mock-angry with each other, and again, it does’t feel real. Later, Kumaran, with good reason, asks Athirai why she’s showing special interest in him. It’s a chat that is supposed to set you up for a potentially romantic development later on. She responds, “When you look at some people, you just know they will need help for a lifetime.” He smiles as though revelling in a compliment — not the insult it seems to be. You’re constantly finding characters who don’t talk and walk as you think they should, and this isn’t pleasantly surprising as much as it is distracting and taking away from the smart idea at the centre of this film. It’s also a big reason why you take it all from a distance, and never truly feel a sense of attachment with Kumaran, Athirai or any of the other characters. I didn’t even feel any particular hatred for the villain, despite the brutality he’s shown to unleash.

I think it’s all to do with the lack of detail, the lack of time spent on humanising the characters. You understand the villain as being an academician who smokes a particular brand of cigarette, who is unreasonably fastidious. But those are his habits. Who was he actually? Why, for instance, is he so frightened of death? What was his reaction to knowing he had figured out the ultimate solution? How does he feel every time he inhabits a new body and begins to live another person’s life? What does it feel like to die, to feel physical, mortal agony? You never truly get these details. Maayavan needed it.

I liked some bits — like a politician getting portrayed as a sensible man, like a constable getting a rather meaty role. I even liked the Black Mirror-esque end to the story. In theory, it must have sounded dark and fascinating. But in execution, it doesn’t quite leave you feeling the torment of the protagonist and his family, the perpetual feeling of unrest, the consequences should the person he’s taking care of pass away… Had Maayavan succeeded in making you feel all this, it could’ve made for a terrific thriller. For now, it will have to settle to belonging in the long category of ‘interesting attempts’, as they say.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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