Director: R Paneerselvam
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya, Bobby Simha
There's one interesting quirk in R Panneerselvam's Karuppan: the songs that are referenced throughout. At a time when most films are content to make the mandatory nod to Vijay and Ajith (and we do get that here, with bits of Aaluma Doluma and Chella Kutti), this director digs deeper. To Sivaji Ganesan hits like Idho Enthan Dheivam and Nalanthana. To MGR hits like Naan Yen Piranthen. There's even a song (Murukku Meesai Mama) that's tuned like something LR Eswari would have been called in to sing in the 1970s. This may be the case of a filmmaker reminding us of the past. This might also be the case of a filmmaker who has little new to say and is content to repurpose bits and pieces from older hits.
From Mann Vaasanai, the thoughtless jallikattu wager that the man who tames the bull will get the girl. From Chinna Thambi, the rich villager who dotes on his younger sister. From Virumaandi, the jobless ruffian (Karuppan, played by Vijay Sethupathi) who's really an innocent, likes his liquor, and gets caught in nasty power games. Plus, the gutsy girl (Anbu, played by Tanya) who won't be cowed down by his macho bluster. The clichés keep piling up — the loving mother, or the nasty villain (Bobby Simha) who's so venomous that his first scene has him handling a cobra. Poor Bobby Simha. He's reduced to striking a series of 'look how evil I am' reaction shots. Do I have to tell you he has an eye on Anbu?
Karuppan is an unabashed shrine to Vijay Sethupathi, who does fascinating things that seem halfway between deliberate acting choices and showing up on the set and doing the first thing that came to mind.
Clichés, of course, are never the problem. It's that the filmmaker doesn't do anything interesting with them. Karuppan is what the trade would label a "B/C-centre film." I was mildly interested for a couple of reasons. One, the leading man (more about him later). Also, it's these films (Vetrivel, Thilagar) that tell the kind of stories urban-centric cinema — with its emphasis on gangs and romance — rarely tells anymore, stories that are about what repressive social milieus can do to relationships. There are hints of what Karuppan could have been in the track where Anbu tries to reform Karuppan (they get married early in the film). Each time he screws up, she's frustrated. And yet, she loves him so much that she cannot stay away.
This might have made for a more interesting movie, but that wouldn't have been a star vehicle. Karuppan is an unabashed shrine to Vijay Sethupathi, who does fascinating things that — as always with this actor — seem halfway between deliberate acting choices and showing up on the set and doing the first thing that came to mind. But at least, it's amusing to watch him amuse himself — say, when Karuppan dashes to the hospital and realises Anbu is pregnant, and his fear gives way to joy. Vijay Sethupathi seems to be doing the acting world's equivalent of ad-libbing. In a better film, such flamboyance could have overpowered the narrative, but here, we're just grateful there's something to see.