Saturday, September 28, 2013

Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum (2013)

In every Mysskin film I have seen, there has been a moment involving a motorbike and a dying man. In "Anjathey", the character played by Naren faces a life-changing moment where he finds a bleeding man on the road but fails to get him to a hospital on his bike. In "Mugamoodi", Jiiva's best friend dies from a gunshot wound after getting him out of danger. It's a fascinating narrative device with inherent ticking bomb qualities to it. "Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum" starts with a similar moment where a young man finds a person bleeding by the side of a road. Overcome by compassion and compelled by his duty as a medical student, he carries the man to the nearest hospital. After being turned away, he runs into a couple of vulturous, apathetic cops who steal the wounded man's wrist watch. With no one else to turn to, he purchases instruments from a pharmacy, takes the person to his own house to perform a surgery. He saves this mysterious man's life but instead puts his own in grave danger.

A few seconds is all "Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum" takes to create an atmosphere that is uniquely Mysskin-esque. He continues to radically frame his shots but not so much that it ends up becoming a parody of his own style. Soon, the cops are involved and a city wide hunt is in place to nab the aforementioned man who goes by the name Wolf. Another bunch of caricaturish weirdos headed by a person named Thamba chase Wolf for reasons only known to them. Chandru (Sri) is under a compulsion to help the authorities to make up for his actions and inadvertently becomes a pawn in the larger game. As the night progresses, the film divulges little about Wolf's past and keeps pulling us deeper into the whole mystery. As the body count keeps on piling, the film starts having a disorienting effect. It becomes harder to keep track of what happened till that point, and frankly, it doesn't even matter. There's a joy in just being thoroughly absorbed in the tale as it unfolds into the late hours.

Chennai, a city with so much character, has a major role to play here. The yellow lit streets are a pleasure to watch since Mysskin is particular about giving us a sense of place and time. The action unfolds in locations we instantly recognize. From Kasturba Nagar to RA Puram, the city comes to life in a different way altogether. The cinematography is exquisite and captures the light in darkness like very few films have. 

"Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum" works better when we are utterly oblivious to the motives which are driving Wolf. I was curious to know what incident set in motion these events, but a part of me was happy to be wrapped in the mystery. So when the time came for us little piggies to see the bigger picture, Mysskin let me down hard by an extended exposition where he repeatedly broke the fourth wall and used a wide range of animal metaphors - just about enough to make Aesop roll in his grave - to tell his backstory. 

Mysskin has this habit of filling his films with a handful of weird, excessively idiosyncratic characters. Besides using many differently-abled people, he also has an affinity for the absurd. In "Onaiyum Aatukuttiyum", the men working for Thamba are an assortment of truly freaky characters. In the increasing order of weirdness, we have 1) the biker pair 2) the Ninja pair which sits in a corner holding what looks like a Katana sword 3) the bespectacled bald man who appears to be wearing a variation of a prison uniform and 4) the fat man holding a packet of chips with a gun hidden in it.

I have often wondered why Mysskin does this. The only reason I can come up with is that it saves him a lot of time which he would otherwise spend developing those characters. These "human props" are his way of adorning his film with people who instantly stand out. Their quirkiness makes them memorable enough to make some sort of an impact on us. When done right, they work rather well. When they don't, and they often don't, they come across as painfully pretentious. For example, there is a bum here who refuses to accept money and instead points at Chandru and says, "Nee oru doctor". Instances like these kill the tension and take us right out of the moment.

The lack of enough moral dilemma eventually turned "Onaiyum.." into just an action film with only surface level consequences. The only ambiguity arose when Wolf handed a gun to a blind man in the line of fire making him culpable. I found this action of his completely incomprehensible and uncharacteristic. But the film is very nonjudgmental and made my heart break for a prostitute with a heart of gold.

Ilaiyaraja's music makes me want to use words like 'operatic'. It is a sweeping score which matches the highly overwhelming images. The end result is scary and beautiful, and often both at the same time. Besides the exposition misstep, "Onaiyum Aattukuttiyum" is an assured return to form from Mysskin. A welcome respite from the spate of comedies and a pretty solid thriller in general.