THIS SON ALSO RISES
Sivakumar’s younger boy debuts in a showcase for how good filmmaking can (almost) overcome mediocre material.
MAR 2, 2007 – IF FLAVOUR WERE TO DETERMINE THE WORTHINESS OF A MOVIE Paruthi Veeran is a classic, one for the ages. It begins with scenes from a thiruvizha — I would have said “folk fair”, but given the rustic context here, that just doesn’t sound right — and this is possibly the most bravura stretch of atmospheric filmmaking since the manjal neeraatu vizha in Kaadhal. People who’ve actually grown up (or lived) in villages may or may not find these depictions accurate, but for those of us from the cities, it’s a whirlwind tour of the rites and the rituals and the traditions that make up rural Tamil Nadu. There’s a staggering amount of detail here — dancers in exotic costumes, loudspeaker announcements, cattle with balloons tied to their horns, card players oblivious to the ear-shattering noise around them, eunuchs singing the praises of a local big shot to the tune of Gangai karai thottam… These opening frames so completely transfer us to a different world — thanks also to the burnt yellows of the cinematography and Yuvan Shankar Raja’s magnificently earthy score — that much later, when the hero discovers love and when Kaadhalin deepam ondru plays on the soundtrack, it comes as a shock. Yuvan may have chosen this number — one of his father’s loveliest creations — to underline the mood of the moment, but it’s too urban, too silken a song for Karthi’s coarse-cotton hero. (He’s named Paruthi Veeran, after all.) It’s when this song came on that I realised how completely the director (Ameer) had succeeded in immersing me in his (fictional?) Paruthiyoor.
This flavour — really — is the reason for the film’s existence, for entire stretches of screen time are devoted to nothing else. The infrequent bits of exposition are almost apologetic, as if Ameer is telling us that he’d rather show a bored Karthi entertaining himself by bullying a group of folk types into dancing than establish the framework of the narrative. And that’s why so much of Paruthi Veeran works so well. After all these years of the cinema, I doubt if anyone actually goes to see a “story” unfold anymore, and Ameer probably knows that his story is his weakest element. (It’s basically a spin on the Romeo-Juliet template, where warring families oppose the young lovers getting together.) This is a movie in no hurry to get anywhere real soon, and that’s because it centres on someone in no hurry to get anywhere real soon. Veeran is the kind of guy you’d club under the category of sandiyar. His life is spent in and out of the local jail — almost always for crimes involving the aruvaa — and his big dream is to land up in a big Chennai prison. But the way Karthi plays this character — and the way Ameer has written him — there’s a strange vulnerability to this young man, and we see this in a scene in jail where he reaches out through the bars and locates a hand mirror and inspects his face as he twirls the ends of his moustache.
This is how he defines his masculinity — and this is how he defines himself. If he weren’t doing these stupid things and ending up in jail, he wouldn’t have anything else to do with his life. He would be a nothing. So it seems only natural that he’d smile for the police photographer, for there’s no one else giving him that kind of recognition. His only friend is his uncle Sevvazhai (a very entertaining Saravanan), and the two cook up a routine so filled with laugh-out-loud one-liners that the real comedy track — one that’s quite funny, featuring Ganja Karuppu — appears redundant. But audience-pleasing apart, Veeran is an unusual kind of hero, because the things he does you’d usually associate with a villain — and it’s not just the constant drinking. At one point, he waylays a couple of lorry drivers who’ve brought a prostitute to their usual haunt, and for a second, you expect Veeran to slap them silly, give them akka–thangachi advice, and send them packing. But he takes the woman inside for his enjoyment, promising the others that they can have her once he’s through. And his heroine (Muthazhagu, played by Priya Mani, who surely has the straightest spine ever in the history of Tamil film heroines) is even more unusual, for she knows that the man she loves is sleeping around, and yet she declares, “En odamba ammanama kaatturadha irundhaa onakku mattum dhaan…” Ah, true love!
And also something else. Watching Paruthi Veeran — or Pithamagan, for that matter — we see how far village-based cinema has come from the days of Bharathiraja. Where there was once sensitivity, there is now sensationalism. That dialogue of Muthazhagu is among the least sensational aspects of this film, for even if it makes you flinch, it’s only in your mind. There are scenes here calculated to make you flinch physically, as if it’s not enough that your mind experiences the revulsion, your body should too. Why else would we be treated to the image of Muthazhagu vomiting all over the screen, or Veeran’s shorts being ripped off to expose a bare buttock, or women being repeatedly slapped and smashed against walls and shoved and raped and murdered brutally? Maybe this is how those bloodthirsty villagers really are. Maybe the problem is with us lily-livered urban audiences. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a lot of this is just Ameer’s way of bludgeoning his audience into submission. He goes equally overboard with the cuteness. The colour-bleached flashbacks of the young Veeran and Muthazhagu are bad enough — though we do get to hear a beautiful number sung by Ilayaraja, Ariyadha vayasu — but when Muthazhagu sits down a group of old crones and jokingly tries to instruct them in the ways of Carnatic music, it’s impossible not to wince.
But then, the director probably felt he had to have something for Muthazhagu to do till Veeran reciprocates her love, which isn’t till late in the film. Ayyayyo, the number that plays soon after, is an instant classic, but the romance in the song isn’t matched by the romance on the screen. He is indifferent to her at first, she doggedly pursues him until he crumbles, and the moment this happens, we should have felt something — the mental equivalent of those giant sunflowers crowding the screen in the Bharathiraja movies. But I remained curiously unmoved. And from this point on till the end, I never quite cared about the characters, who simply seemed to be mechanically fulfilling plot functions — which is so different from what they were doing earlier on, just being. Priya Mani is quite good, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better she may have been had Paruthi Veeran been merely a love story — like Mann Vaasanai, where the boy and the girl were merely pawns on a chessboard dominated by the people around them — instead of a hero-centric love story. In today’s scenario, we’re asked to deal with a protagonist who won’t just switch off the lights, he’ll leap up and break the glass bulbs with his aruvaa. If you don’t giggle at this bit of macho insanity, it’s because of Karthi, who holds the screen with the assurance of a veteran. This is a superb first-film performance by any standard, and it makes you reach for that oldest of movie-myth clich¨¦s: A star is born.
Copyright _ý2007 The New Sunday Express