I don’t remember the last time I laughed as loudly in a theatre as I did watching Doctor
For a brief while, a few minutes into Sivakarthikeyan’s latest film, Doctor, I wasn’t sure if I’d stepped into a Selvaraghavan film by mistake. The protagonist, Varun (Sivakarthikeyan), sits quiet, staring mirthlessly at his fiancee, Padmini (Priyanka Arul Mohan), as she proceeds to call out his profound lack of emotion. His face, fittingly, is frozen—as it does for the remainder of this film—while he takes in her criticism. At this moment, the Sivakarthikeyan we have come to know over the years, might be expected to launch into a funny monologue, perhaps at the girl’s expense, but this role is a departure in his career. Later, the girl’s father approaches him and tries to establish male camaraderie by saying that his daughter, Padmini, needs a husband who can slap her and bring down her ‘thimiru’. Varun’s enjoyable riposte is this: “Naanum thimiru pudichavan dhaan sir.” I laughed, in relief almost.
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Priyanka Arul Mohan, Vinay, Redin Kingsley
I wasn’t sure if this placid face of Sivakarthikeyan in this all-new avatar would go on to be sacrificed in this film for a more familiar version. However, I enjoyed—really really enjoyed—that this never happens. Someone, almost affectionately, dubs him, “Loosu Doctor”. Someone else does one better: “Paasakaara psycho”. This is Sivakarthikeyan in a comedy, albeit of the black variety, being secure enough to stay away from joining in, being secure enough to be a passive participant while characters around him chatter away. This is Sivakarthikeyan as we have never seen him before, and it’s admirable that he hasn’t just acted in this film but produced it as well.
I don’t remember the last time I laughed as loudly in a theatre as I did watching Doctor. This film’s jokes are so wild, so funny, that it makes you bide your time during the duller, no-joke portions, only so you can let director Nelson have you in splits again. The film is about child trafficking, about sex slavery, about a submissive family forced into acts of crime, but all this solemnity is a device with which to unleash inventive comedy. Sure, it’s rather risky because this is a film full of violence and darkness. Thumbs are lopped off, people are readied to be burnt alive, necks are carefully slit… And yet, with some terrific writing and uninhibited performances from actors like Redin Kingsley, this film finds ingenious ways of delivering laugh-out-loud humour. Director Nelson Dilipkumar shows an evident talent for it. Sample this. In one of several wonderfully bizarre scenes, a man’s kidney is removed, and he is told to comply, were he to need his organ back. Lying on the hospital bed, he doesn’t seem eager to comply. And that’s when a character throws the ultimate threat: “Kidney-a thooki kakkoos la potruven.” It’s a warning so ridiculous, so unexpected, that it’s impossible not to spit laughter. Fear not, this film is a treasure trove of such absurd dialogues. As a man is whisked away on a boat towards his death, he demands a lemon because he feels seasick. Could a man really be as cool in the face of imminent death? These are questions you don’t ask, and frankly, shouldn’t, in a film of this genre, as it gets in the way of your appreciation of its humour.
If Kolamavu Kokila hadn’t convinced us that this filmmaker is an admirer of Breaking Bad, this film confirms it, with the assassin twins idea (Raghu Ram and Rajiv Lakshman). This is a film full of inventive ideas, like Yogi Babu’s ‘ara kai’ game, for instance, as part of which participants smack the back of each other’s hands—a game I dare say might be at home in Squid Game. Even beyond the joke portions, director Nelson shows an eagerness to do away with the usual. Composer Anirudh’s songs may have gone viral, but look at how the two most popular songs (‘Chellamma’ and ‘So Baby’) are used away—one at the beginning and another at the end—so the film can do its job without distractions. Look at how he deals with the mandatory fight sequence. He sets it in a train—okay, that’s not exactly novel—but then, he switches off the lights and equips the parties with infra-red goggles, and even better, proceeds to elicit non-stop laughter, as people fumble along. While on mandatory angles, in a film featuring Sivakarthikeyan, by now, it’s no surprise that some portions are going to involve his bond with children. And so yes, he rescues children here, but then again, the formula of it all is offset by how this is hardly an innocent film. Nelson even manages a great emotional moment when the otherwise quiet Varun tells the girl child that he rescued her, not to win favours with her aunt, but because he genuinely loves her.
However, each time the jokes come to a trickle and the film soldiers on through its troughs under the delusion that it’s communicating some real tension, you get impatient. The villain (Vinay) is a cardboard cutout you learn nothing about, and yet, Nelson seems keen to project him as a serious threat. For lack of well-written transitions between the serious portions—particularly in the second half—and the comedy, you are sometimes left confused. I remember at least once when I had barely caught my breath back after laughing that I was pushed into an emotional scene that seemed to come out of nowhere. If I had to use an analogy as morbid as the humour in this film, I’d say that I felt like I were spotted laughing at a funeral.
I also didn’t care for a few jokes that come at the expense of women, with one particularly uncomfortable idea being about a man made to wear a nightie and called Gomathi. More importantly, Padmini (Priyanka Arul Mohan) might have benefitted from having something to do in the story, instead of being all dolled up and looking meek (in much the same way this actor does in her Telugu film, Gang Leader). Perhaps even Nelson realised this at some point, for he throws in a jibe at her expense, when someone asks her, “Summa lipstick pottutu unna madhri naan okaandha, unakku epdi irukkum?” Till the end, I wasn’t really sure what Varun truly saw in her. Perhaps her ‘thimiru’? But we don’t see a whole lot of that either, after the opening scene.
However, it’s a film with some daring, astonishing ideas for jokes, and for that, I’m willing to forgive its weaknesses. There’s even a beautiful idea underneath the story that speaks of how empathy and emotion isn’t just about words, how it isn’t just about caring for those we know. In a world that is rather unkind to those who may not be great with the words, Doctor is a story of a woman realising that her understanding of what constitutes emotion and empathy is rather superficial. That Nelson has communicated such a difficult idea whilst having us in splits, is an indication that Tamil cinema has a unique directorial talent in him, one I pray that the star system doesn’t go on to stifle.
This review was written for Cinema Express and was originally uploaded here.