Jyothika’s character is near flawless in Udanpirappe too, but at least, she’s not dispensing long monologues, and she’s definitely not invincible
Sometimes, we forget how far Jyothika has come. From playing hyper-excited, high-pitched women who existed to feature in duets and get rescued by the hero, this actor has truly come into her own, and in her second innings that began with 36 Vayadhinile, we have seen her create a market for films centred on her. For the most part, these films have been home-produced, and have had her playing the activist type. Her protagonists (save for Bala’s Naachiyaar), have been designed to be redeemer figures, and can often be heard dispensing generic motivation like, “Thuninju nil!” and “Edhirthu poraadu!” That’s why I find her latest release, her 50th film, Udanpirappe, to be rather interesting. Her character is pious and near flawless in this film too, yes, but at least, she’s not dispensing long monologues, and she’s definitely not invincible. For large swathes of this film, in fact, she’s a victim figure, a hapless spectator of the battle between two male egos. Regardless of what this review goes on to say about Udanpirappe, let me reiterate that the film is still an interesting choice for the actor. Maybe, just maybe, she can build on this and go on to, maybe, play and normalise flawed women in future films… Or am I asking for too much too soon?
Director: Era Saravanan
Cast: Jyothika, Sasikumar, Samuthirakani, Soori, Kalaiyarasan
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video
Udanpirappe begins rather alarmingly with Vairavan (Sasikumar) going to great lengths to hide tractors and going on to observe that farmers keep the tractor business alive and not vice-versa. Oh, great, another generic farmer film. But then, thankfully, the film takes cognisance of its title and begins to focus on the dynamics of Maathangi’s (Jyothika) family. You see, owing to circumstances detailed later in a flashback, she’s not on speaking terms with her brother, Vairavan (Sasikumar). More interestingly, it’s established that her husband (Samuthirakani) is at ideological loggerheads with her brother. While these portions were playing, I realised that I had, in fact, missed such contained, emotional films that speak of the messy business of human relationships and the redemption within.
Sasikumar, who plays a man of violence, seems strangely frozen in scenes where the writing clearly expects more from him. Perhaps it’s intentional, perhaps it’s not, but it’s odd when the counterpoint of such scenes is a Jyothika who’s operating on the other extreme of emotional expression. She’s choking and quivering, overwhelmed by emotion, and in response, we get reaction shots of Sasikumar, who’s supposed to reciprocate, but who, instead, ends up looking awkward.
As for Samuthirakani, he could play these characters in his sleep. It’s another iteration of the law-abiding good man, one who believes that due process, as spelled out on paper, must be followed at all times. At one point, Udapirappe speaks of the ideological conflict between these two men: law vs morality, temple vs court. As a character puts it, sattam vs saththiyam. And for a while, I liked that the film refuses to take sides—much like Maathangi, who believes that there’s place and justification for both in the world. I say ‘for a while’ because Samuthirakani’s character feels underwritten and eventually, in reducing him to an Ambi (Anniyan) figure almost, it almost makes him a laughing stock. In a moment of real seriousness, just after he’s got a close associate (Soori) arrested, he sees three men riding on a bike and lectures them against it. I didn’t quite understand why this man, a believer in law and due process, needed to be reduced to a parody of an individual lacking any real sense of time and place for his well-meaning advice. As an aside, I liked Soori, especially in those quick, little scenes that ask him to be more than a comedian.
Among the pleasures of these family films, is the exploration of how circumstances conspire to create trouble between evidently good people. It’s like how in some marriages, both parties can be good, and yet, reach a point where they want nothing to do with one another. In Udanpirappe, Maathangi, her husband and her brother are all good people, caught in a complex battle of ideologies and haunted by a traumatic past, and yet, most disappointingly, this film finds the need to bring in an external villain, a joke of a man with his over-the-top antics. In addition to being a violent, corrupt businessman, he’s also shown to be a slave of his lustful urges, which he often expresses by making love to pillars. This whole angle is a joke, an abomination, in a story that deserved far better.
Another problem is how even the emotional portions in this film play out like in a bad television serial: Slow reaction shots, loud, melodramatic music, people tearing up at the slightest provocation… In writing, the interplay between these characters might have seemed interesting. For instance, there’s an interesting scene in which we learn of the sacrifice Maathangi has made for her brother, and yet, when it plays out, you are not as moved as you should be. The reason? It’s hard to tear up when characters do it for you.
I might still remember this film for some useful intentions. Among its messaging is a scene mocking the greed of a hospital—one in which a North Indian pawnbroker gets humanised; a takedown of those who criticise women for not having children… Perhaps my favourite is a scene in which Maathangi, that angel wrapped in human skin, empathises with a killer who has just hurt her daughter. These are interesting ideas, but in speaking of a film titled Udanpirappe, what does it say if the brother-sister relationship that’s at the centre of the film, doesn’t move you as it should? What does it say that you are stifling laughter when the villain is shown to be doing his worst? Our filmmakers and writers must realise that sometimes, especially in films about familial relationships, the big bad villain is the interpersonal dynamics, the situational disagreements, that stir trouble between good people. For lack of it, we will continue to be presented with villains who make love to pillars.
This review was written for Cinema Express and was originally uploaded here.