Southern Lights: ‘Ispade Rajavum’… ‘July Kaatril’…And The Modern-day Tamil-film Romance

Two movies go beyond the clichés in our love stories, but only one of them has real heart
Southern Lights: ‘Ispade Rajavum’… ‘July Kaatril’…And The Modern-day Tamil-film Romance

Which was the first 'can't live with you, can't live without you' romance in Tamil cinema, the kind whose path was strewn as much with razors as roses? The Madhavan-Meera Jasmine track in Aaydha Ezhuthu? But even if there have been predecessors, the "genre" has never quite caught on. Even when Gautham Vasudev Menon came out with jagged-edge romances like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya and the woefully underrated Neethane En Ponvasantham, they seemed like one-offs in a cinema culture that views relationship problems largely through a simple (and single) cause/effect prism. Usually, something major happens and that results in a (usually temporary) split, but these films said that no second hero (or heroine) was needed, and even if the parents objected (as in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya), the couple was more to blame. Internal factors (indecisiveness, insecurity) were as major as the external ones (say, the boy or girl being engaged to someone else). But despite the success of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, the failure of Neethane En Ponvasantham and Kaatru Veliyidai (from a few years later) perhaps kept this "genre" of romance away from our screens.

Two releases, last week, attempt to remedy this situation. Ranjit Jeyakodi's Ispade Rajavum Idhaya Raniyum is the less successful film. Its intentions are in the right place. It wants to harness the negative energies of Kaatru Veliyidai and Tamasha — the two most high-profile "feel-bad" romances of recent times. But instead of the positive endings of those films, Ispade Rajavum imagines what such toxicity in a relationship would really result in. After everything that's happened, are we to believe that VC and Leela (from Kaatru Veliyidai), Ved and Tara (from Tamasha) are destined for a happily-ever-after? That's the question on which Ispade Rajavum is built, but this fascinating foundation is severely undermined by the numerous cracks in the writing. In his search for Big Moments (that will explode impressively on screen), the writer-director forgets to clue us in on the small shifts that couples negotiate over the course of a relationship. Not a single scene is convincing, and all you can give the film is an A for effort.

I wrote about Ispade Rajavum in detail in my review in this space, so I'm moving to the other (and much better) walking-on-glass romance from last week: KC Sundaram's July Kaatril. The behaviours here aren't as aggressively (and showily) destructive as the ones in Ispade Rajavum, but the film shows how even the gentlest, most well-meaning people can devastate hearts and lives. Take Rajeev (Ananth Nag), who takes a liking to Shreya (Anju Kurian). A little into the film, he breaks up with her, because he doesn't feel "the spark". And he knows he feels it when he sees Revathi (Samyuktha Menon), after getting engaged to Shreya. What a cad, right?

Wrong. Rajeev helps out at a school for children with special needs. He could have slept with Shreya when she draws him into her bedroom when no one else is at home, but he doesn't. His phone rings. He has to be somewhere. He leaves. (With Revathi, though, the "spark" clearly helps. They make love fairly early in their relationship.) Shreya's friend, Poorni, gets Rajeev at once. She says, "He is a nice guy, but it looks like he is waiting for something better to come along." Why, then, did Rajeev date Shreya, and go as far as a formal engagement ceremony? Because, as he admits in a moment of candour we rarely see in our leading men, his family was pressuring him to get married and his friends were getting married and Shreya came along just when he was despairing of meeting anyone and…

And what about his relationship with the far more independent Revathi? He turns into Shreya. (In that relationship, Shreya was more into him than he was into her. Here, the tables are turned.) He seeks constant reassurance. He begins to whine about unanswered calls. It's a classic 'be careful what you wish for' situation. He wasn't in love with Shreya (he merely liked her), so he could let go of a lot of things. But his feelings for Revathi are more intense, and he's annoyed about her hanging out with her male friends. Would a generally cool guy like Rajeev get so insecure about this? But the writing makes you dig into him, and you sense that maybe he's afraid Revathi will find "the spark" with one of these guy friends and do to him what he did to Shreya.

I loved it that the outwardly docile Shreya likes fiery works of fiction like Meena Kandasamy's The Gypsy Goddess, while the outwardly fiery Revathi is content with easily digestible pulp like Robin Cook. I could totally buy this. You cannot stereotype a person's reading habits by the way they come off in real life

July Kaatril is by no means a perfect film. The songs by Joshua Sridhar are superb, but they crowd the narrative and there's too much reliance on montages to move the relationships ahead. Sathish is painful as Rajeev's friend. His cheap wisecracks sound ridiculously out of place in such a sophisticated scenario. The staging is non-existent (the lack of a decent budget clearly shows), and the supporting actors are especially stiff. There's a lot of needless directorsplaining of key concepts, and the dialogues have no flavour or sense of a lived life. (Sample: "Unnoda two-timing laam inime vendaam.") And I did not buy the closing portions, where Rajeev embarrasses himself thoroughly. I wished the film had ended a little after the characters decide to move on.

But unlike Ispade Rajavum, the foundation is sturdy, and the Small Things are in place. The film is divided into chapters titled "Rajeev", "Shreya", and so forth. The former shows us the relationship from Rajeev's POV, while in the latter, we see how (and how much) Shreya fell for Rajeev. We see her friend (who was not present in the "Rajeev" chapter). We even see what she reads. I loved it that the outwardly docile Shreya likes fiery works of fiction like Meena Kandasamy's The Gypsy Goddess, while the outwardly fiery Revathi is content with easily digestible pulp like Robin Cook. I could totally buy this. You cannot stereotype a person's reading habits by the way they come off in real life.

This is an admirably matter-of-fact narrative. Rajeev meets Shreya's parents in a very matter-of-fact manner — there's no drama. He breaks up with Shreya in a very matter-of-fact manner — there's no drama. He tells his folks about the breakup in a very very matter-of-fact manner — there's no drama. Revathi talks to her father about her break-ups in a very matter-of-fact manner — there's no drama. And through these events, we get an idea about the difference in the backgrounds of Rajeev and Revathi. Her ultra-modern father is remarkably understanding about her turbulent love life. His father, on the other hand, stops speaking to him. Even Rajeev's birthday wish to Shreya is very matter-of-fact. He calls her. She heads to her bedroom window, perhaps expecting him to be there, with her name spelled out in candles or holding a basket with a puppy. But he has an early flight to catch and this late-night call is it.

Rajeev, Shreya and Revathi come off as unique individuals and not generic archetypes. July Kaatril zooms in on their work life to an almost unprecedented level. Rajeev is a sales manager. Shreya is a psychologist at a school. Revathi is a photographer. These are not just titles. We see them exclusively at work. They have lives outside of their love lives, though, understandably, this work life is affected by the love life. When Rajeev and Revathi are in a good phase, he exceeds sales targets, and when trouble hits, his performance slumps. As it would. July Kaatril shows us how a change of place (as opposed to drowning oneself in booze) can help get over a break-up. Most refreshingly, it shows us how falling in love isn't always the means to an end, but, sometimes, a milestone in one's journey, something that brings about personal growth. These micro-flourishes make you want to see what the director can do with better resources — but even in this less-than-ideal form, this is a notable debut that shows where Ispade Rajavum went wrong. It isn't about Richter scale-shattering theatrics. It's about something as small as saying no to a boy who asks you out, because you've just had your heart broken and your first priority is to make it whole again.

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