Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yennai Arindhaal (2015)

This article is intended for people who have seen Gautham Vasudev Menon's Yennai Arindhaal.

"Yennai Arindhaal" marks Gautham Vasudev Menon's return to action filmmaking for the first time in 9 years. It's another righteous cop story that works better as a romantic family drama than it does as an action film. Ajith, in what I personally think is his most captivating performance to date, gets to play the guy Suriya and Kamal did in the past, and goes on to one-up them.

Stripping the film to its bare bones, it's a story about a boy Sathyadev whose father gets killed (collateral damage, as the boy would one day grow up and say to someone else) by a gangster, and decides (with some inspiration from Alex Pandian) to become a cop to stop people like his father's killer. Although the film's intentionally misleading teaser makes it seem like it's a story about a man having an internal battle between good and evil, in reality, this whole Melisaana Kodu business is as important as a scratch on Sathyadev's Enfield. Menon introduces it, but does nothing to explore the theme. There's no pull of the dark side luring Sathyadev to cross over. There's no evidence to show that, deep down, his chosen nemesis Victor wants to be a good guy. These two people are quite comfortably thriving in their own chosen sides of the melisaana kodu with no moral quandary. For that, you'll have to go see Mysskin's brilliant "Anjaathe". But seriously, what do expect a boy to become besides a police officer when you name him Sathyadev?

Gautham's writing seems to grow just a wee bit with each iteration, and by an iteration, I mean one whole fucking movie. The old tropes are everywhere. Some of these are intrinsic to what we have now come to call "a Gautham Vasudev Menon film". The interiors of houses, cluttered with books on filmmaking; two people bonding during travel; the mild-mannered romance, like an advertisement for Bru coffee; being admirably progressive and celebrating women. But then there are some which only go to show his limited writing prowess - like the part where Sathaydev's father basically rephrases "pursue what your heart desires" from "Vaaranam Aayiram", or the unnecessarily long kidnapping subplot set in New Delhi from the same film, which makes a splashy return with additional details about organ trafficking.

A lot of people have been calling "Yennai Arindhaal" the final chapter in Menon's cop trilogy. When "Vettaiyaadu Villaiyaadu" came out back in 2005, nobody called it a spiritual sequel to "Kaakha Kaakha" - because, let's face it, those two films were quite different. Just because there's a third film now, people are falling over themselves to defend Menon's repetitive narrative choices. Besides, there's so much happening - with the Rise-Fall-Rise structure typical to superhero films - that this one film is a trilogy in itself. A boy is spurred by the death of his father, becomes a cop, excels, quits after lover is murdered on the eve of wedding, takes a long break to bond with his lover's young daughter (All I'm saying is Menon is clearly a big fan of "Thanga Meenkal", a film which he himself produced) from a previous marriage, is forced to return after a friend's daughter goes missing, settles old scores and avenges lover's death. This is pretty good, right? On a story level, the answer is yes, but the end result is a) a resounding no or b) a half-hearted yes, depending on who you ask.

When actresses are offered a role in a Menon film, I'm sure they all want to play the one who dies. Playing the role Hemanika, a classical dancer/single mom, Trisha, the closest thing people of Chennai have to royalty, is breathtaking. These are things that Menon does effortlessly. Sathyadev's personal life is where the film scores.

When it comes to "The Dead Wives Club," Gautham is second next to none other than Christopher Nolan. In "Memento", "The Prestige" and "Inception", and to an extent in the Dark Knight trilogy and "Interstellar", Nolan's protagonists are driven by the death of their wives. The abduction and the subsequent killing of Maya in "Kaakha Kaakha"; Kayalvizhi's death in "Vettaiyadu Villaiyadu" turning Raghavan into an invincible cop with nothing to lose; Meghna's death in "Varanam Aayiram" sending Suriya on an all consuming downward spiral.. and now again in "Yennai Arindhaal", where Hemanikaa is sacrificed to set up a revenge plot. The reason I find this motif problematic in a Menon more than I do in a Nolan is because 3 of these 4 instances were in a cop film. Besides being predictable to the point of amusement, the death of Hemanika is frustrating because it allows us a glimpse at the frayed edges of Gautham's imagination. If there's any upside to this, it's that no matter how short-lived the marriage or the relationship, the guy always gets laid. Doesn't matter, had sex.

Pandian, Ilamaaran, Amudhan - these are iconic villains by the standards of Tamil cinema. The performances may have been too show-y for my taste, but there was a significant deal of intrigue surrounding these antagonists of Menon's previous two cop films. We witnessed them doing horrible things and we knew what they were capable of. In "Yennai Arindhaal", we get a watered-down, one-dimensional, PG-13 bad guy in Victor (played by a devoted Arun Vijay.) He is the name-sake villain here but you seldom see him do really bad things. Sure, he shoots a cop (Michael Mann's Heat inspired this scene, and perhaps more) once, abducts a homeless kid from the street, but that's the farthest Menon is willing to push Arun Vijay. Deciding not to show the grisly murder of Hemanika at the hands of Victor robs the second half and the climactic showdown of serious retributional heft. Instead, Menon chooses to play it out like a twist near the end, to Sathyadev and to us. And that didn't work for me at all because, by this time, Hemanika is a distant memory. A few months from now, I don't think I'd remember anything about Victor - because what does he really do anyway? 

For the sake of argument, imagine that Anbuchelvan, Raghavan and Sathyadev are all the same person. I am sure it's not a stretch. Now allow me to collectively refer to this person as "the cop". So here's the pattern: if a part of what happens in "Vettaiyaadu Villaiyaadu" was the life lead by the cop after the events of "Kaakha Kaakha", then, as a friend suggested, a part of what happens in "Yennai Arindhaal" is the life lead by the same cop had Aaradhana died at the end of "Vettaiyaadu.." and left him with the daughter. It fits, right? It's basically a same person who soldiers on as people he falls in love with keep dying one after the other. Now, calm down, people. Let me assure you this "cop trilogy" is not the result of some grand design. It just goes to show just how badly Menon is in need of a writing partner. Also, here's wishing good luck to the character played by Anushka.

It's also not a smart film. Besides Ajith, every other cop is shown as an inept fucking idiot. Even as a police procedural, it doesn't deal with an interesting subject. It's slick, sure, but intelligent it is not. The intermittent humor is quite pleasant, I must say - a risk, as in the past, Menon neatly pulls off. Going into this film, I thought it was rather admirable of Gautham to ask for help because he was apparently struggling to complete the film. I don't see any of Kumararaja's "touches" in the final film and I'd love to be enlightened if you felt otherwise. In the final 30 minutes, Menon attempts to create tension through dynamism, the way director Hari does so often, keeping characters constantly on the move. But it doesn't really help. "Yennai Arindhaal" is an uninspired rehash of everything Menon has done in the past and doesn't really amount to much.