Director: Arun Vaidyanathan
Cast: Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Arjun, Prasanna, Sruthi Hariharan
Note the poster in the room of the protagonist's child in Nibunan (Expert). It has Arjun's face morphed onto a superhero's body, and it says: My daddy is a superman. Everyone seems to agree. Arjun plays a supercop named Ranjith Kalidoss, and his deputies (Prasanna as Joseph, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar as Vandhana) keep singing his praises. He notes, casually, that Vandhana is wearing new earrings. She gasps, "Kazhugu kannu!" (Eagle Eyes, which isn't a bad name for a Tamil superhero) When a minister tells the SP, "I want your best man to handle this," whom do we cut to? Don't bother! It's a rhetorical question.
Not that this is a problem. After all, our "mass" masala movies are essentially hero-worship vehicles, and despite the Hollywoody serial-killer-on-the-loose premise, Nibunan is very much an "Arjun movie." Before we see his face, we see him rolling up a sleeve and revealing the tricolour tattoo on his arm. Let's dwell on this actor for a minute. This is his 150th film. Could anyone have imagined that this star of eighties' B movies – Shankar Guru, Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu (yes, it was an Arjun title long before it was a Kamal Haasan title) – would still be around? And would still look so good? At 52, he gives you #FitnessGoals.
The director, Arun Vaidyanathan, nails a vibe that lies midway between the fantasy universe of our masala films and the grungy netherworlds of Hollywood's serial-killer thrillers
Also, #StyleGoals. Ranjith's bristly beard – with flecks of grey – is always just the right length. He wears knitted two-tone ties, designer sunglasses, Armani tees – even at home, he lounges about in Fila sandals. This says something about the man, something that isn't said in so many words. He likes dressing up. As does his wife, Shilpa (Sruthi Hariharan). It's nice to see this actress – often seen in slightly offbeat films – in such a mainstream role, always looking like she's heading for a photoshoot for Femina's Domestic Goddesses special.
The director, Arun Vaidyanathan, nails a vibe that lies midway between the fantasy universe of our masala films and the grungy netherworlds of Hollywood's serial-killer thrillers. The insides of Ranjith's home are awash in sunlight. The killer's haunts are lit in shades of puke-green. The film is like, say, Se7en, built for an Ajith or Vijay fan who doesn't watch much cinema from outside Tamil Nadu. Echoes of Dirty Harry (a Zodiac killer), Dexter's "kill room," the Aarushi Talwar murder case coexist with cute (but never over-cute) husband-wife banter, and Joseph's appetite for Thalappakatti biriyani.
As last week's Vikram Vedha proved, this is the way to go. Make it different, but not too different. (Can you imagine that film's reception had it been the story of, say, rivals in the corporate world instead of cop and gangster?) Shilpa gets an upscale profession (she's an abstract artist), but she also gets teased about it, when Ranjith "deconstructs" a painting as though cracking a crime scene. Nibunan accommodates a sarakku scene (Ranjith and his brother, played by Vaibhav, bond over booze), but instead of lamenting about "figure"-s, they talk about the case that got Ranjith fixated on this line of work. The hero gets action scenes, but he also has to fight a debilitating physical condition.
Nibunan is certainly watchable. It moves briskly, without item numbers and suchlike. But it lacks that certain something – the dread-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach air of Yuddham Sei, the flashy narrative gimmicks of Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru – that could have made it special. The second half is considerably weaker, with a few too many coincidences, and the revelations around the killer don't live up to the build-up. (Would a criminal use a vehicle so conspicuous on Indian roads?) But Arjun keeps it together. He's calm, collected, he proves it's possible to be classy in the massiest moments. He could teach today's kids a thing or two about #HeroismGoals.