Thursday, May 27, 2010
VINNAITHAANDI VARUVAAYA (Tamil; 2010)
Gautham Menon isn't my favorite director. Although I hugely enjoyed his Minnale (2001), that film didn't have much of what later became recognizable as his style, a post-Mukull Anand, post-Agni Natchitharam chic marked by neo-Hollywood technical slickness and crisp lighting, whether in the service of police procedurals that began better than they ended (Kaakha...Kaakha (2003) or Vettiayadu Vilaiyaadu (2006)), or more domestic genres (Pachaikili Muthucharam (2007); Vaaranam Aayiram (2008). So I was hardly enthused when I heard Gautham was making a love story with Trisha Krishnan and Silambarasan in the lead (if there's a hero I like less in Tamil cinema, I haven't seen him). Until I heard Gautham had jettisioned long-time musical collaborator Harris Jayaraj in favor of working with A.R. Rahman. And saw stills from the film, featuring a hero I was assured was "Simbu", but who looked nothing like him. Clearly, Gautham was returning to the love story genre of his first film from 2001, but didn't want to tread old ground.
Well, sort of. Like Minnale, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya involves a Hindu-Christian love story. But whereas communal difference didn't matter much in the earlier film; here it is one of the main reasons why Karthik (Silambarasan ("Simbu")) and Jessie (Trisha Krishnan) find that the course of their true love does not run smooth. Nor is it the only one: Jessie is not only Malayalee Christian to Karthik's Tamilian Hindu, she is -- gasp! -- a year older than him. Karthik is also, for the umpteenth time where a Tamil film hero is concerned, an aspiring film director -- and as such doesn't have any real job prospects as far as Jessie's tyrannical father is concerned. We know what to expect from here on: after some hand-wringing by the female protagonist, the lovers will proceed along their clandestine way, until they are caught out by this or that parent, followed by a hastily arranged betrothal of the girl to some other guy. The only open question is whether the wrong marriage will be conducted. Um, do you really have to ask?
Gautham doesn't completely depart from this script for most of the film, but he does mix it up. The skeletal plot above, which could be expected to take up an entire film, only takes up half of this one, with most of the couple's romance actually following Jessie leaving the Other Guy high and dry at the altar. After the interval, the furtive romance blossoms, although Jessie is adamant that she won't be eloping with Karthik: she will bring her father around -- but seems not to make the slightest attempt to broach the topic with him). Even when the ultimate end is not in doubt, but Gautham plays enough with the conventions of the genre to ensure that the film's twists and turns aren't very predictable. That is, they all occur, just not when one expects them to. The final, and somewhat clumsily executed, twist takes the film to some place rather different from love stories, although it's an open question as to whether the film is better as a result.
The film's strength lies in the fact that Gautham does a better job of capturing the mood of young love than the carefree ambience favored by far too many Hindi film love stories. Such carefreeness is implicitly, in the context of a society riven with social distinctions and largely predicated on arranged marriages, a marker for a certain kind of privilege: for instance, nothing stands in the way of Saif's and Deepika's urbane love in Love Aaj Kal except their own wishy-washiness. Apart from that, there would be no issue with the eligible pair: no communal or class distinction could intrude. The same holds true for the Aamir-Preity Zinta pair in Dil Chahta Hai. (Instructively, in Love Aaj Kal, such conflict is relegated to the 1960s, a depressing reminder of the yuppiedom that has overtaken the Hindi film audience; in the Present Day, it seems, we don't worry about these things -- odd given the sorts of news stories that are never far from the front pages.) Even the exceptions actually reinforce the rule; these days, it takes something truly cosmic, like the India-Pakistan border in Veer-Zaara, for the world to intrude. I don't mean to dismiss these sorts of films out of hand -- it is possible that the flight they represent is part of their charm -- but merely note that they trade on fantasies of escape, not on catharsis. Gautham knows better, and the Karthik-Jessie relationship knows no dopey gallivanting around fantasy landscapes (the one exception, the "Anbil Avan" video, is in fact a fantasy) -- it is always fraught, and menaced by the world.
Along the way, there is much fresh dialog in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya ("When I saw you on the terrace, I wanted to touch your face," Jessie tells Karthik in one scene; such directness is a far cry from the saccharine falsity of most Bollywood love stories), along with some wannabe stiltedness ("You're hot," Karthik tells Jessie; the only surprise is Karthik's belief that this line might work; later on he mentions a "one-way ticket to heartbreak city"); gorgeous Kerala locales; and an unobtrusive attitude. This film's determination to evoke a youthful, more contemporary vibe is manifested in its laid back feel, its post-Mani Rathnam, (relatively) naturalistic dialog, and in the sleek visual texture Gautham's films tend to have -- not in its theatrical attempt to tear up the script (a la Dev D (2009)). Nor is this love story embarrassed by its sappiness; nevertheless, the film's biggest drawback is possibly that it sacrifices a little too much romantic intensity at the altar of Gautham's "contemporary" vibe. But all in all, Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya seeks to update a cinematic tradition, not up-end it; as such, it feels less of a one-off than the Dev D's of the world; and more of a pointer to a possible way forward for big budget, star-driven commercial cinema. Leaving aside the odd false step (the odd twist at the end; plus, Gautham recycles an old stereotype about intransigent minorities in making Jessie's Christian father appalled at the thought of a Hindu son-in-law; while communal difference doesn't even register with either Karthik or his parents), Gautham gets enough right to make Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya worth watching. Stated differently: if you don't think this makes the cut, you're probably not watching too many Tamil or Hindi films.
Tamil films aren't known for strong characterization of women, and for the film's first half it seems that Trisha Krishnan's Jessie is not going to re-invent that paradigm. But even in the first half Gautham does steer clear of the infantilism that is often the lot of female lead roles in major Tamil films: Jessie is always a young adult, and for that Gautham has to be commended (that he has to be speaks volumes about what the rest of the industry is doing on this front, but that's a different story). Trisha Krishnan has never been the most expressive of actresses, nor is this role especially taxing, but she is seamless here as, quite literally, the girl upstairs. Her trademark gestures -- the furrowed brow, the quizzical look, the half-smile -- have never been used to better effect. Not that the glamor quotient is absent: there's no getting around the fact that Ms. Krishnan is bewitching here, in the way of one's first crush, an unattainable neighbor -- that is, if one's neighbor were a major movie star. Especially in the array of saris she wears, like a woman who knows the dress is sexy as is, and does not need much tarting up (or down, as the crotch-level saris of the Priyanka Chopras and Deepika Padukones show). The actress really comes into her own around the film's half-way mark, as Jessie begins to take charge of her own love story: post-interval, Jessie is assertive and sexy in way not enough lead roles in Tamil films have been (I couldn't help but wonder whether the fact that Jessie isn't Tamilian freed Gautham of the burden of having her serve as guardian of "Tamilness"; the inextricable link between Tamil cinema and cultural politics means that not many can rise above such turgidity). I do wish that the screenplay had allowed her point of view more scope: her inner voice is so absent that when we do hear it in a couple of scenes in the film's second half, we are startled, and forced to acknowledge that it has been missing all along.
And then there's Simbu. The film's leading man shows that the most drastic make-overs do not always need the most make-up or prosthetics: shorn of his facial hair and the jerky mannerisms that made something like Saravanaa both parodic and unbearable, I barely recognized the man on screen, looking more like a cross between Abhay Deol and Madhavan (the latter also called Karthik in his first hit, Alai Payuthey), than his own former avatar. Simbu is patchy but effective in his best moments, combining intensity with awkwardness like any kid head over heels in love. Even with respect to the unevenness, I wasn't sure if Gautham's screenplay wasn't just as much to blame, and to Simbu's credit he does well enough. Most important, he is completely fresh in this role, and is an appropriate vehicle for Gautham's aim of re-imagining the rather well-worn love story genre. He's no Madhavan, but how many are?
On the CD inlay, A.R. Rahman wrote that "[s]coring music for this film was like a peaceful homecoming," as good a summary of the score as any. This will never be considered one of Rahman's major works, and while the combination here of the later Rahman's slick production values with the sparse bent of some of his albums from the early 1990s produces a curiously un-Rahman effect at times, the mood lingers. This is Rahman's most consistently mellow album (and background score) in quite a while, with a personality as charming as Ms. Krishnan's. ("Kannukkul Kanne" typifies this: never has the Tamil tapori vibe seemed so laid back -- but then, it likely has never previously been set amidst waltzy strains and a soaring refrain of the sort that Rahman has made his own.) And one of his more situational: for the first time since Rang de Basanti, I had to watch the film to fall for Rahman's music. Curiously, it is the music videos that seem visually "off" at times: both "Kannukkul Kanne" and "Hosanna" are visually pitched a shade higher than the music, although Rahman himself errs (not for the first time) with Blaaze's faux-reggae vocals in "Hosanna." But these are cavils: on the whole, Gautham does justice to the music by making sure the film is suffused by the same breezy yet lovelorn mood throughout, and not just when the music videos are on -- if any part of Kerala has ever been captured more joyously than Allapazhu is here by cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa, I don't know it. One cannot help but think of Kaadal Virus -- what would that superb album have come to mean, if Gautham had directed the film?