In every great film, there comes one defining moment that assures us we are in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. I vividly remember watching the FDFS of Doctor on October 9, 2021, in a packed multiplex in Chennai. I was pleasantly surprised by the usage of the song 'Nenjame'. One might expect this melancholic song to convey the heartbreak of the film's leads, especially given how the promotional music video had portrayed it. However, in the film, the song is recontextualized to emphasize the pain and longing of a family when their daughter goes missing. This is just one of the many clever touches evident in Nelson’s filmography.
On the surface, his films are black comedies spun around serious situations but look deeper, there’s more than what meets the eye. From warm frames to his deadpan protagonists and the wacky yet deadly situations they are forced into, the Nelson touch is evident in his three feature films—Kolamaavu Kokila (2018), Doctor and Beast (2022)—in some capacity. You see, you might dislike Beast, but his directorial vision is tangible. Nelson might not have completely translated what he envisioned onto the screen, but it is still A NELSON FILM. In simple words, it’s not a star vehicle like Darbar (2020) in which a filmmaker’s style is suppressed by the need to glorify the star to such a massive extent that the directorial touches are rendered non-existent.
While the negative reactions to Beast were a huge setback for the filmmaker, he is now coming back with an equally big Jailer, starring Rajinikanth in the lead role. It’s going to be a vital film for Nelson as he has to prove himself again, and we cannot wait to see how the worlds of Nelson and Rajinikanth blend in. As we await the arrival of Jailer, which surprisingly has lesser hype compared to Beast or even Annaatthe (2021), perhaps it’s a cool time to look back at Nelson’s films, the similarities they share, understand his approach to filmmaking, and inject some hype into our veins.
The Practicality Of Protagonists
Nelson is a practical person, as claimed by himself in an interview with Baradwaj Rangan. Nelson’s personality seeps into his writing in the form of characters that approach difficult situations in a highly practical way, staying away from drama. Take, for instance, the mother’s character played by Saranya in Kolamaavu Kokila. The film is set in a lower-middle-class Chennai household and when the mother is diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer, she immediately accepts her fate, fully aware of the family’s financial limitations. When the doctor says that her treatment will cost around 12-15 lakhs, the mother advises her daughter, Kokila, to not waste money on her treatment and use every penny she saves for her own future in an impactful scene. We see the mother accept her eventual death as she insists on getting a family picture clicked. She then asks Kokila to transfer the cooking gas to her name as she feels it might be a hectic process to handle after her death. The casual tone of these conversations shows that characters in his films react to life-threatening problems in a practical manner instead of reacting emotionally.
We see the same in Doctor, which is, in a way, a thesis on ‘practical approach vs emotional approach’. Right during the opening scene, Varun has to make a choice; to save either an esteemed Indian army officer or a terrorist. He chooses to treat the terrorist because the chances to save him are higher than saving the army officer. The film keeps reiterating Varun’s practical approach to life with the help from characters around him.
Even in Beast, when Veera Raghavan and others are entrapped in a shopping mall that’s hijacked by terrorists, his instant plan is to safeguard himself and his people from the terrorists. Saving everyone and becoming a hero is not his immediate objective.
When Protagonists Become Heroes
While his protagonists are practical to the tee, it is an emotion that pushes them to become what they are. Kokila, a simple woman becomes Kolamaavu Kokila because she is driven to save her mother. It’s love that’s driving Kokila. Her subtle transformation from a timid person to someone who would want two men killed so she has no obstacles in her way is massy in every sense because we see her slowly learn the tricks of the murky crime world she has been forced into. This is when she becomes the hero of her story.
Midway through Doctor, Varun gets a chance to save Chinnu, the missing girl the family has been trying to find but he chooses to save not just Chinnu, but all other victims of human trafficking. Chinnu’s family members beg him to let go of other girls and just save Chinnu but Varun refuses, saying he’ll save either all of them or die trying. This moment makes Varun the hero aka “Paasakara Psycho”.
Likewise, in Beast, the moment Veera Raghavan decides to step out and fight the terrorists is when he hears a young girl crying. This ties to a traumatic incident from his past, the death of a young girl he feels guilty about. So when Veera Raghavan is saving a girl from the terrorist, he is seeking redemption. It is guilt that is driving him.
Nelson’s screenplay introduces conflict pretty early in the narrative. In Kolamavu Kokila, the mother’s condition is revealed at exactly the 20th minute of the film. In Doctor, Chinnu goes missing much sooner, in the 13th minute. In Beast, the protagonist’s internal conflict, being complicit in the death of an innocent girl, is incited around the 15th-minute mark. An issue I found with Beast is that the film has both internal and external conflict so Raghavan has to overcome his grief and save people trapped in the mall. Somehow, the internal conflict didn’t play a bigger role in the narrative after a point. In KoKo and Doctor, however, although the protagonists go through a journey, the conflict is largely external as the screenplay is more mission-driven.
You might ask what’s so special about Nelson introducing conflicts and getting the ball rolling early in the runtime, but I feel that in the zone the filmmaker is operating in: the mainstream masala genre, where we are attuned to waiting till the big interval bang for the story to start, Nelson’s screenplays are fresh.
Nelson’s films are about people caught in odd, dangerous situations and this gives the filmmaker a wide arena to play with characters. KoKo and Doctor, especially, make brilliant use of the supporting characters, both to take the story forward and for entertainment value. In the Nayanthara-starrer, Kokila uses characters like Bobi, Bhai, Inspector Guru and his wife to accomplish her mission. Yogi Babu and Anbu Thaasan, who get mixed up in the story, add to the fun without ever pulling us out of the story.
In Doctor too, Varun uses many people for the sake of his mission, from Mahaali, Kili, Melvin, Alvin, Bhagath and Prathap, while also seeking the help of Mini’s family members and his colonel. Not only does this interplay let the filmmaker create some super fun and inventive sequences (like the “Akka… thanni” bit in Koko, the hand game or the metro sequence in Doctor) but the characters populating Nelson’s world make it lively. You can call it a Breaking Bad influence, something that is evident in his films.
This is also an aspect where I felt Beast missed the mark despite holding immense potential. It had a handful of characters but they always remained in the background while Vijay's humongous shadow loomed large in the foreground. Mahaali and Kili did get a great moment but it was too late.
Jailer, on the other hand, boasts a huge ensemble cast and I cannot wait to see how Nelson will be playing with those characters, played by stars of different industries.
One aspect that Nelson doesn’t get enough credit for is how well his films are shot and directed. Be it the usage of grungy backgrounds, warm colours, short siding, dutch angles… you can see that the filmmaker is trying to create a distinct visual texture in his films. KoKo, with its warm colour palette, has a unique quality to it. The frame of Nayanthara walking out of the room with a gun before she is set to kill someone, with a portrait of Goddess Durga mounted on a wall, is a brilliant shot. Likewise, Doctor too feels very Wes Anderson-esque in its framing and usage of static shots. It’s these directorial choices that make his films more than just comedies.
While Beast didn’t work for the majority as well as KoKo and Doctor, let’s all wait and see how Nelson plans to reclaim his glory. It’s going to be a crucial film for him and so far, it looks promising. With just one week left for the film, I’ll just say I trust Nelson to spin his magic. And who doesn’t love a great comeback story?
With inputs from Hariharasudhen Nagarajan