The Debate Over Dhanush’s Voiceovers In Gautham Vasudev Menon’s ‘Enai Noki Paayum Thota’

Every time someone tries something new, audiences are amused. Take Mani Ratnam’s dialogues. People used to laugh: “Mani Ratnam padam hero maadhiri pesaadhe.” (As in, don’t speak in those clipped tones.) 
The Debate Over Dhanush’s Voiceovers In Gautham Vasudev Menon’s ‘Enai Noki Paayum Thota’

For the past couple of days, I've been getting memes based on Enai Noki Paayum Thota (ENPT). Some of them are very funny — I've always maintained, at least when it comes to comedy, that the people who make these memes are brighter than most of our screenwriters. I also agree that there is nothing we can do about these exaggerated reactions. A filmmaker puts out his or her work. And the audience responds. Some of these responses are like mini-reviews on Facebook. These come in a (mostly) respectful tone, even if the reviewer did not like the film. But on Twitter, anything goes. You can control neither the content nor the tone of the response.

So I get this — and this piece is not about whether we are being "fair" to a filmmaker when we mercilessly begin to troll a certain aspect of his/her work. That is the way the world is, and you can't turn it back to a more "civilised" time. Now, I have to take a "civilised" tone because reviewing is my job, and I have to be "professional" about it. (Well, unless the film is terrible and really gets under my skin, but more about that later.) The average viewer has no such restrictions. They can be as cruel as they want — it's all in the spirit of fun. Every filmmaker knows this: Don't enter the kitchen if you can't stand the heat.

I thought the voiceovers in ENPT were beautifully used. There was so much flavour in what was being said. Take the opening scene where the Dhanush character faces a killer. He doesn't just talk about the killer. He talks about how killers in cinema never just shoot right away. He talks about the delay that allows the potential victim to think of an escape plan. He talks about an astrologer who said he'd have a long life. Or take the voiceover when he finally embraces the Megha Akash character. The lines deepen our understanding of the man and the moment he is in, making the embrace more specific than a generic "I love you" hug.

Read:  Vishal Menon ranks every Gautham Vasudev Menon film

Also, there's a logical reason for these voiceovers because both halves of the film start with Dhanush staring at death, and both times, his life is flashing before his eyes — the voiceovers unify the moments we see subsequently, pulling them repeatedly into this moment of Dhanush in danger.

But that is me, and I am not saying you should see ENPT the same way. My argument is not that you should like the voiceovers for the reasons that I do. Hate them all you want. Hate this film all you want. Heck, hate Gautham Vasudev Menon all you want. My argument is that this hatred should be shown… respectfully.

So I'm going around in circles, right? On the one hand, I am saying that trolling is inevitable in the world we live in. And now, I'm saying let's express dislike, but in a tone that's a little more… tolerant. I'm saying let's try and make the distinction between films that try to do something new and fail (if that's how you feel about ENPT) and the numerous lazy films that don't try at all.

Every time someone tries something new, audiences are amused. When Mani Ratnam and PC Sreeram broke away from the two prevalent lighting trends of Tamil cinema — flat (i.e. every spot on screen is equally lit), and naturalistic (like in the Balu Mahendra, Ashok Kumar school) — people used to laugh: "Mani Ratnam padam na orey irutta irukkum." But he was trying something new, something Expressionistic. He was lighting only certain areas of the screen for an emotional reason. Or else, take his dialogues. Again people used to laugh: "Mani Ratnam padam hero maadhiri pesaadhe." (As in, don't speak in those clipped tones.) People were amused because it was so different from the prevailing style of dialogues,where so much of plot and character was revealed purely through speech, and here, this filmmaker was letting his "staging" do half the speaking (meaning you had to pay more attention to the visual language).

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's <em>Saawariya</em> was called a &quot;blue film&quot; but Krzysztof Kieślowski's <em>Three Colours: Blue</em> was celebrated.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya was called a "blue film" but Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours: Blue was celebrated.

Or take Sanjay Leela Bhansali. People laughed at Saawariya. They called it a "blue film". Now, again, the point isn't that you should like Saawariya. Hate it all you want. But the blue is there for an emotional reason. It evokes a rasa, it evokes night time — and this is a story that never sees the sun. We don't troll Krzysztof Kieślowski for Three Colours: Blue, do we, for filling the screen with the titular colour in so many scenes? (The film is so carefully colour coded that even a crinkly lollipop wrapper is blue.) So why not try to see Bhansali in the same light, with the same respect, and then dismiss the film for whatever your reasons are? And now, GVM is trying to do something with voiceovers, and we are laughing again.

Where am I going with this? Sometimes, when a filmmaker plays with form that breaks away from what we are used to, we don't know how to respond. We know how to respond to a different kind of content — say, a new kind of thriller or a different flavour of drama. That evaluation is easier because the form is still familiar. But when someone plays with this very form — i.e., when a filmmaker makes a strong aesthetic choice that's very radical —  I feel we need to give him/her some leeway, but yes, without bending over backwards.

Translation: We don't have to put the filmmaker or his/her filmmaking on a pedestal just because they tried something different — because this "something different" has to work for the viewer, too. But it's also necessary to recognise acts of envelope-pushing in a film industry that's generally content to coast on formula and A/B/C-centre calculations.

Why is this important? Because I don't want our young future filmmakers to get scared about playing with form. ("Oh if we do this, people will troll us to death. Let's stick to the safe option.") I don't want their ADs to warn them, "Venaam sir, remember what happened with Gautham Menon!"

Dhanush and Megha Akash in <em>Enai Noki Paayum Thota</em>
Dhanush and Megha Akash in Enai Noki Paayum Thota

There are two kinds of filmmakers. One of them says: "This is the formula that works now." Or "This is the star of the moment now." What this kind of filmmaker ends up making is a "project". And there's nothing wrong with it. If someone wants to do nothing but try and "please the audience", then who can question this choice?

But there's another kind of filmmaker who wants to take risks, because he/she is in the game for the cinematic high. It's not that they do not care about the audience or the box office. (Otherwise, ENPT might have had, say, Kathir, instead of Dhanush.) But they want to keep trying out things. Some of these things we will like. Some, we will dislike. But this kind of filmmaking needs to be treated with some amount of respect, even if we don't end up liking a particular film.

In my case, I reserve my "trolling" — i.e. the snarky tone, etc. — only for the really shitty films (IMO, of course), where, forget pushing the envelope, they're still writing with feather pens on papyrus. But take Kaithi. The film did not work for me as much as it did for others. But I respect the film. I respect the filmmaker for what he was trying to do — despite the fact that many of these things sound better in theory than actually on screen. I will never "troll" such a film. I will say why the film did not work for me — but in a professional tone.

Anyway, this is my piece and I have said it. This is not addressed to casual movie watchers, because we cannot expect them to care about the art form as much as we do. But if you say you love cinema — and not just specific movies — then you need to consider GVM's voiceovers seriously. You need to see what they are trying to do, and how they do it. And then, if the technique still does not work for you, you have to lay out serious reasons why, and not random clichés like "voiceovers mean lazy storytelling" or "show don't tell" or "cinema is a visual medium". We need to understand that that form is also content, that style is substance, too.

End of lecture. The trolling may resume now.

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