Navarasa Review: Vasanth Sai and Arvind Swami excel in this mixed bag

Films on Anger and Disgust stand out in this anthology that has everything between the good and the bad

Edhiri (Compassion)

Director: Bejoy Nambiar

Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Revathi, Prakash Raj

Through an act of compassion, a man can become a great man. Through a great act of compassion, a man can become something even greater—perhaps even god. It’s perhaps why you keep hearing the song, ‘Manidhanenbavan dheivamaagalaam’, through Bejoy Nambiar’s opening segment in Navarasa. The story isn’t exactly complicated: Vijay Sethupathi, playing a character that seems like a spiritual extension of the one he played in Iraivi, commits a crime in a fit of rage (and for that reason, this story could well fit into ‘routhiram’ too). You will find that many of these stories utilise other rasas to focus on their own—and this, I suppose, is the interdependency of emotions. So, in Edhiri, a man commits a crime and must, like Raskolnikov, deal with his conscience. Here though, there’s another character with a similar battle—the wife of the murdered man—and there’s a small twist in the end that wonderfully places her alongside Dheena (Vijay Sethupathi), and not above him. The two yearn for some compassion, some mercy. Dheena seeks it from Savithri (Revathi), and the latter, in turn, seeks it from what she deems to be a higher authority. (Savithri incidentally is a pretty curious name for a woman who’s hardly the ‘perfect wife’.)

It’s the performances from Revathy and Vijay Sethupathi that truly elevate this film. It’s a delight to watch them in each other’s presence, to watch their eyes spill so many secrets. Great actors don’t need the crutch of words, and you see this particularly when, in a scene, Vijay Sethupathi leans on a pillar, hears the verses of ‘Manidhanenbavan…’ and lets his head drop, almost in resignation and in regret. It’s bewitching to watch them both, and for that reason, I’ll remember Edhiri.

Summer of ’92 (Laughter)

Director: Priyadarshan

Cast: Yogi Babu, Remya Nambeesan, Nedumudi Venu

This film begins with a shot of Yogi Babu (playing Velusaamy) returning to his hometown, as a celebrated comedian, and it feels quite meta in how this is true, in a sense, of the actor himself and his rise from being an unknown victim of body-shaming in the name of humour. Soon though, the film, in its impatient transitions to some dull flashback sequences featuring a younger version of his character, relegates him to the background.

And then begins the familiar insult comedy. “Panni moonji vaaya,” someone calls him. It doesn’t really make sense, but the film is supposed to be about Haasyam, and so, you are meant to find it funny. What the first segment spoke about—compassion—this film seems rather devoid of. Even a dog bears the brunt of some discomfiting treatment, and when someone suggests that it be killed, you are encouraged to process it as a joke. The onlookers Velusaamy narrates his anecdotes to seem to laugh a lot, perhaps to pressurise you to do the same, but not once does it work. Right at the beginning, you are told that a day without laughter is a day wasted. Well, this film certainly doesn’t help you in that regard.

Project Agni (Wonder)

Director: Karthick Naren

Cast: Arvind Swamy, Prasanna, Poorna

Soon as Krishna (Prasanna) asks Vishnu (Arvind Swami), “Nethu dhaan Interstellar padam paathiya?”, I suppose we should have known. He even helpfully adds, “I know you are a huge fan of Nolan…” He might as well have been talking about the director, I suppose, given that Project Agni feels like a pretty strange discussion of a few ideas that often populate the Nolan universe. There are lots of ideas thrown about in what feels like a rather forced conversation between Krishna and Vishnu.

Something about an alien race, something about astrology being accurate, something about computer simulation, something about a dream world being destroyed, something about time being a separate dimension… And perhaps because Vishnu has also recently watched Inception, we get something about going deeper into the subconscious, something about taking a leap of faith … And there’s even more in this half-hour film, but I’ll save you from it. Bandying about such concepts is often mistaken for ambition, when true ambition is really deep exploration. For this reason, this film fails to evoke any real sense of wonder—the theme of this film. The film tells you that the journey Vishnu takes into his subconscious is called a ‘drift’, and at one point, Krishna asks, “How do you know when you are not in a drift?” I murmured, “Totem, of course.” But perhaps because that might have been too obvious an inspiration, this film doesn’t quite go there. Truth be told, it goes nowhere. And the late cursory twist only makes you drift off.

Payasam (Disgust)

Director: Vasanth Sai

Cast: Delhi Ganesh, Aditi Balan, Kathadi Ramamurthy, Karthik

Like with the other films, a quote opens proceedings in what’s easily my most favourite film of this anthology. It goes, “Fear is danger to your body, but disgust is danger to your soul.” This lovely Vasanth film, as the quote suggests, is an examination of the soul of its elderly unnamed protagonist, who’s referred to, quite against his liking, as ‘Subbu-oda chithappa’ (played by a terrific Delhi Ganesh). It’s a film that does so many things so well. Its setting—that of a Brahmin wedding—is established in painstaking detail: the energy, the colour, the rituals… The extravagance of setting—in people, food, and clothing—is crucial to this story, as this serves to instigate the Chithappa.

The film quietly documents the roles assigned to women in the setting and can be seen as a commentary of it too. Aditi Balan’s character, a widow, is treated with a fair bit of disgust by many. But this is a film that belongs to Delhi Ganesh, who at 77, delivers a physical performance full of vulnerability, both of the soul and of the body. Watch him as he reluctantly enters the wedding, slipping and stumbling. Watch his contempt for Subbu come through in spoken and unspoken ways, in glances and head tilts.

Vasanth Sai manages to infuse this film with a bit of organic dark humour as well. Among my favourite bits is when someone asks Chithappa, “Sowkiyama?”, and the latter retorts, “Sowkiyam illa, enna panna porel?” Even in moments that don’t necessarily add up to the big picture (like the examination of hierarchy between the cooks), this film shows a lot of sensitivity and interest in human relationships. It’s a film, I dare say, the late K Balachander would have been quite proud of. It’s the sort of contained film, focussed on everyday gestures and conversations, that we don’t get a lot of. And yet, it effortlessly manages to dissect a man’s psyche, and present you the ugliness within. That is no small task.

Peace

Director: Karthik Subbaraj

Cast: Bobby Simha, Gautham Menon

There’s something inexplicably entertaining about seeing Gautham Menon and Bobby Simha in a bunker, wearing soldier uniforms and gearing up to launch a counter-offensive. Think of it as our version of Expendables in a sense, but Karthik Subbaraj’s film, of course, isn’t about superficial entertainment. It’s about a few Eelam soldiers in a war situation (Karthik, of course, has shown interest in Eelam history, evident even in his recent star vehicle, Jagame Thanthiram). And there are some nice director touches, as you would expect from him—especially when he captures the indifference of nature to the plight of these Tamils.

Shots of the sky, a spider web, the sun, a whiff of greenery near the bunker… One long shot tracking Nilavan (Bobby Simha) as he runs in and out of danger is an example of directorial flourish. There are some cute ideas, like the names of these characters, for instance. Apart from Nilavan, there’s a Castro… and do I even need to say why? He saves the cutest idea for the film’s twist. The difference here is that it doesn’t come at the very end; it comes much, much earlier, and serves to lay bare the cold irony about the hearts of certain men. This film named—and ostensibly about—Peace, is about the lack of it. It’s a reasonably effective short, but one whose deliberate design stops it from eliciting any strong, emotional response.

Roudhram

Director: Arvind Swami

Cast: Riythvika, Sree Raam

If Bejoy’s Edhiri (Karunai) contained an important moment of Roudhram, Arvind Swami’s Roudhram contains an important moment of Bibhatsa (disgust). It’s a film that explores anger, of two main types: red-hot rage, and the more affecting variety: the simmering, undying resentment. We are introduced to a poor neighbourhood, a place where people struggle to pay rent and put food on the table, a place populated by unkind homeowners and opportunistic loan sharks. At the centre of this story may seem to be a man—a teenage boy, in fact (played by Sree Ram, who I really liked). But make no mistake, this is a film about many types of women: the little girl who wants to escape the asphyxiation of the neighbourhood, the mother who wants her children to have a life different from her own, the policewoman who finds relief in brutalising suspects… There’s even a sex worker who gets to be part of a lovely scene on a terrace where she and another character, a mother, weigh in on what it’s like to be a woman. At the outset, they seem like they have different takes, but you realise they are communicating the same: being a woman in our society is a burden.

This film also has some great commentary on how rage is, in a sense, a natural consequence of being a have-not. Those who have, can afford the luxury of composure. Those who don’t, suffer, and in their suffering, rage. In a lovely directorial touch, Arvind Swami changes a Mani Ratnam song, ‘Vennila vennila vennilaave’ from Iruvar, from being one about seduction into being one about exploitation. There’s a fantastic twist too in this film, but not the obvious one about an identity reveal. The twist I enjoyed is how Arvind lures you into believing that the film is about one sibling, while actually being about the other. It’s a great touch, and one that really ties in with the film’s consistent interest in its women. There’s even time in this film to dig into cusswords, like ‘the****** pa***’, for instance—and speak of the shame it creates in a man, of how it humiliates a woman. The observation here is how society plants ideas concerning purity in the minds of our children, and how this, in turn, debilitates and damages them. If I had some grouse at all, it would be that Rahman’s music handholds a bit too much, but that’s just a minor complaint about my second most favourite film of this anthology.

Inmai

Director: Rathindran R. Prasad

Cast: Siddharth, Parvathy

Inmai is interesting—that much is for sure. The Rumi poem at the beginning, about how fear is the non-acceptance of uncertainty, is deep enough, and sets the mood from the very beginning. I enjoyed that little conversation in the beginning about calligraphy, and as an extension, the whole Islam angle in this film—which shouldn’t feel so fresh in our cinema, but on account of the limited exploration of the religion in our cinema, it does. The setting, the music, the clothes, the nature of the evil… All of it is what you don’t usually get and is a large part of any enjoyment arising from this film. Vishal Bhardwaj’s music is a strength too, as is how this film gets treated visually—green being a dominant colour across this film for obvious reasons.

Wait, what about the theme of fear, you ask? The exploration in this film is through a character who, we learn, has forever lived in fear of retribution. The problem though is, you don’t necessarily get much information about the nature of her suffering. You get the what, you don’t really get the how. There’s the mandatory flashback, the mandatory twist… And the film hurries into its end, its underwhelming, seemingly hurried resolution leaving an unpleasant aftertaste that’s quite unfair to the film.

Thunintha Pin (Courage)

Director: Sarjun KM

Cast: Atharvaa, Anjali, Kishore

When it’s evident that a filmmaker has shot day for night, your suspension of disbelief gets ruined. A chunk of the early portion of this film is hampered by this. It’s a film that bites a lot more than it can chew in its 30-odd-minute duration. It tries to present to you the courage of a naxal leader but is cautious not to belittle the courage of officer Vetri (Atharva). Meanwhile, there’s a wife (Anjali)—pregnant, so you can feel more empathetic towards her—who’s waiting for her missing husband to return.

The story is by Mani Ratnam, so it’s quite hard to shake off the Roja echoes in these spaces, even if this film barely matches up to that one. Meanwhile, this idea of an officer and a naxal having an ideological battle inside a jeep feels interesting on paper, but sparks don’t fly during the actual conversation. The real problem is how, with all the jumps in time and perspective, the small ideas don’t really come together to make a riveting whole. Perhaps the biggest indictment is how even though guns are shot, blood is shed, and sacrifices are made, not once do you feel the rise that a true act of courage invariably makes you feel.

Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru

Director: Gautham Menon

Cast: Suriya, Prayaga Martin

By now, you have made peace with the Gautham Cinematic Universe (GCU)… or not. There’s no middle-ground here, because the filmmaker is beset with conviction in his idea of romance that usually seems to begin at first glance. Look, you already know the rules of this game. The man is polite to a fault, and here, he’s called Kamal (Suriya). As Nethra (Prayaga Martin) puts it, “manly, yet so soft”. The man likes that the woman shows traits he values in his mother. The woman, admirably, isn’t one to shirk away from speaking her mind or more importantly, communicating her desires. In this film, she’s even ready for rejection, ready at a moment’s notice to take it in her stride.

And there’s going to be Raja, of course. With Mani Ratnam involved in this project, the first sound of Ilaiyaraaja you hear is when Nethra’s phone rings and you get strains of ‘Ninnukori’ (Agni Natchathiram). A pleasant surprise is a lovely song that incorporates this bit into it—this filmmaker continues to show great taste for music and an uncanny ability to draw good music from every composer he works with. Kamal is a composer, and so, it’s not just Raja here—there’s Beethoven too, with ‘Für Elise’ getting a tasteful musical interpretation too. “Same thing,” says Kamal, likening Ilaiyaraaja and Beethoven. The man rides an Enfield—but, of course, it’s the GCU. We have heard it before from a man, but here, the woman, in speaking of her attraction, goes, “enna pottu thaakichu…” And of course, she speaks a bit of Malayalam. Again, it’s the GCU, and you need a—to borrow a Karthick Naren line from his segment, which, of course, he borrowed from Inception—‘leap of faith’. If you don’t buy the suggestion that someone like Nethra could be travelling by bus or train, you may find immersion difficult. But if you take that leap of faith, then, you’ll find some pleasures along the way—like those awkward pauses in dialogue between two people who are newly interested in each other, like the rewarding laugh when you make an offhanded comparison between the London bridge and the Adyar bridge.

It helps that both Suriya and Prayaga seem to have really bought into this film. One of the ideas I quite liked in this film is how their relationship evolves over a bike ride, as the camera remains focussed on Chennai traffic. Flirting, sometimes, is sparring—and you see this when Nethra’s hand goes on and off Kamal’s shoulder, based on his responses. You also see this when Nethra says that she made deliberate mistakes to stay longer in the recording studio, and Kamal returns the favour later on in the film. In fact, I wished that the whole film had been a bike ride. That might have felt… less familiar.

Suriya, shorn of mass heroics, is a presence I quite liked, playing a man who seems comfortable in his masculinity without having to drum it in at every opportunity. I liked, and think there’s definite utility in a woman being shown as taking over the reins of a relationship. Watch her response on the bike when Kamal evinces interest in her. She puts her hand up in jubilation and mock-screams, “Yes!” To appreciate the rarity of such expression—and its utility—I don’t even think GCU admiration is necessary.

This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.

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