Vaazhl Movie Review: Fable-ish, even if not fabulous

Despite all its positives, Vaazhl doesn’t work as well as it should—perhaps on account of being as rushed as our own travels often are

Such is the impact of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild that it’s impossible not to cross-reference it, every time you catch a protagonist idling in nature. Our protagonist, Prakash—unlike Christopher McCandless—is your average sex-starved single paiyan. Call him Generic Tamil Young Man. Even the name, Prakash (Pradeep Anthony who seems like a natural), seems as generic as they come. As is his unhappy IT job, and of course, the glares from Generic Corporate Boss. Prakash is mollycoddled by his mother, and this relationship too is symptomatic of an entire generation of men growing up in size but not in self-sufficiency. He is in a relationship—because isn’t that what you are supposed to do—with a woman who’s shown to be a parasitical bimbo, perhaps only so we can feel closer to Prakash, who, incidentally, has her number saved under the charming name of Psycho Janani. This man is directionless, purposeless, and stuck in the rut of life. In a sense, he is the personification of almost every person working a dispassionate full-time job, only so they can make ends meet. The side-effect of placing such a generic character at the centre is, of course, how it makes it hard to really root for him. At all times, you observe him only from a distance.

Director: Arun Prabhu Purushothaman

Cast: Pradeep Anthony, TJ Bhanu, Diva Dhawan, Aahrav, SN Bhatt

Streaming On: Sony Liv

The film eggs you to look inward for joy. Are you sure your life is the adventure you dreamt it would be when you were young—or has society done its job in cutting your individuality out and making you part of the despairing collective? An important truth the film points out through lyrics and voice-overs is how we are all rather detached from a natural way of life. And this doesn’t, of course, mean that we need to do a McCandless and resettle inside jungles, in case they are still around. Vaazhl gives you pointed advice: Travel for at least 30 days a year, without worrying about your family and work. If I told a friend that, I’d likely hear, “Sure, you’ll sponsor the trip and the salary?” Nevertheless, the film, despite seeming to preach to the privileged, means well, and its advice can be processed as a timely reminder of how, being as we are so immersed in the business of living, we often forget that we are as occupied with the business of dying too.

I enjoyed that Vaazhl shows the same reverence and the attention to detail to capturing Tamil Nadu as it does exotic locations like Papua New Guinea and Goroka Islands. It’s again a reminder that the sky and the trees and fresh air are still close by, should we seek them. It’s an ode to travel, this film, and for that reason, a boy at the heart of it all is named Yatra. I thoroughly liked the digs at over-protective parenting, and how it creates unmanageable restless toddlers. Note how soon as Yatra is let into the outside world, he transforms. I enjoyed that the film doesn’t really lecture you about it, but instead lets you process its quiet criticism of how we seem to have forgotten that we are animals too—even if of the civilised variety.

You would struggle to enjoy Vaazhl if you took it in as a plot film. It’s like a fable in a sense. Things happen seemingly out of nowhere, setting changes, new characters appear in short bursts, and all the while, Prakash gets transformed slowly but steadily. It’s like the film says: “Sandhikkara ovvorutharume, namma vaazhkaiya maatha koodiya sakthi padachavanga.” If you begin digging into plausibility in an experiential film such as this, even passing developments, like Prakash and Tania doing a dance-battle and defeating local cops, begin to break down—let alone the idea of a pestered IT employee enjoying life in Papua New Guinea.

What the film lacks when it comes to creating emotional involvement with Prakash, it makes up for by looking and sounding exquisite (cinematography by Shelley Calist, editing by Raymond Crasta). There’s a constant play of light and shadow even in the interior shots, a reminder of what awaits these characters outside the walls. Pradeep Kumar’s magnificent, experimental score—the classical ‘Mudhal Darisanam’, retro-style ‘Inba Visai’, the meditative ‘Semmaan Magalai!’—is an incredible source of strength for this film. The music of Vaazhl is as varied and beautiful as the places in it. And director Arun Prabhu Purushothaman employs Pradeep’s music to enterprising effect with some refreshing choices. Drums and guitar communicate revelry, in the aftermath of a murder. A Latin American peppy beat is the backbone of a cop chase sequence. Even ‘Mudhal Dharisanam’ gets used constantly to generate humour. I doubt we are going to get a better sensory experience all year. And for this reason, if not for anything else, I wish we had been able to catch this film in the theatres.

And yet, despite all these positives, Vaazhl doesn’t work as well as it should—perhaps on account of being as rushed as our own travels often are. The beach one day, the waterfalls another, the forest one day, and before you know it, it’s all over. We return to work feeling more exhausted than relaxed, and this was pretty much my response to Vaazhl as well, despite its aesthetic excellence. You don’t get as much about its people as you do about its places, with character descriptions feeling rather simplistic. Abused wife, restless child, frustrated protagonist, kind hippie… At least one or two of these characters needed more complexity, so they could really spring to life. There’s another character—my favourite of the lot—an old man in Thanjavur (SN Bhatt), who shares a moving anecdote from his childhood. It’s an affecting story about a pigeon who suffers a cruel fate, its effect compounded by the realisation that it’s an analogy for us all. I wished he were the protagonist.

For a film with such deep observations though, I found its take on many of its women a tad cold. Prakash’s former girlfriend is a cartoon. His mother is projected as a nag. Yatra’s mother (TJ Bhanu) isn’t particularly likeable either, even if she’s comparatively better. I think I felt particularly bad about Prakash’s sister who is portrayed as a tearful mess, and a particular low point is when both Prakash and his father thrash around her prospective husband, as Pradeep Kumar’s music seems to revel in it. Do these characters need to travel, in order to be kinder at home?

Like Aruvi, this film too showcases this director’s control over dark humour. A corpse is pushed down from a chair by a child and the animated gasps of everyone around, is the type of humour we rarely encounter in Tamil cinema. A dialogue that Yatra learns around interval time gets repeated many times to hilarious effect, with Pradeep Anthony’s effective victim-face adding to the joke. There’s also an attempt at irony with usage of songs like “Ennoda raasi nalla raasi...”, “Raja chinna roja odu…”, and “Nandri solla unakku…”, but that didn’t really work for me.

Thoreau famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Pradeep Kumar captures this pain through three words in an aching admission: “Kanaa… pongi oduthe…” This is not an easy topic to make a film about, the objective being to remind us of the beauty of the natural world around us, of the beauty of being alive. Even if this film isn’t as satisfying as the director’s debut, Aruvi, director Arun Prabhu Purushothaman shows that he isn’t here to make easy films. And that single realisation gives me more happiness than the film did.

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

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