Director: VJ Gopinath
Cast: Vetri, Monica Chinnakotla, Rohini, Ashwini, Karunakaran
VJ Gopinath’s Jiivi opens with a scene of Saravanan (Vettri, the leading man of 8 Thottakkal) staring at a plastic water bottle being tossed on the road from a car window. The bottle gets smashed by oncoming traffic. “That’s my life,” he feels. He’s one of those men who moved to Chennai in order to make money. But he’s stuck in a series of blue-collar jobs, and ends up making juice in a tea shop, with his friend and roommate, Mani (Karunakaran). Of his time in his hometown, he recalls, “Enakkunu oru gethu irundhichu.” (I used to be someone.) Now, he’s anonymous. And poor. He says, “Panam irukkaravana paatha poraamaya irukku.” (I’m jealous of people with money.) When we learn about Saravanan’s thirst for knowledge and his ability to outthink others, the stage seems set for a clever heist.
But the film, written by Babu Tamizh, springs a sweet surprise. Before we get to it, though, we are made to suffer a badly conceived love track, whose sole plus point is that it firms up Saravanan’s resolve to get rich quick. Here’s the surprise: The real leading lady of the film isn’t the girl with whom Saravanan sang a duet, but his landlady, whom he calls Owner Akka (Rohini). She treats her tenants like family, and asks them for regular favours. This is a superb character, a companion to the strong and tireless housewife from House Owner. She’s been dealt a bad hand. Her husband is bed-ridden. Her daughter is blind. Her property ends up being stolen. But she faces these situations without breaking down — because if she loses it, there’s no one else to take charge.
Slowly we realise that she has her share of regrets in life, from her youth — and we see Jiivi isn’t about a heist, after all. Saravanan’s amorality and his desire to make money, Owner Akka’s past “sins” — everything builds to the idea that karma is inescapable, and that we live in a just world, where wrongdoers don’t win and those who have been wronged end up being compensated for their suffering. Jiivi is, thus, an existential thriller. It’s a marvellous idea, but this is a film you admire more for what it wants to be than what it is. The fabulous conceit needed equally fabulous filmmaking — the acting (watch out for a scene at a bookstore) and the staging (watch out for the weird edit transitions) just don’t cut it. Technique isn’t everything, but it can’t be nothing, either. (To see how a similar premise can be handled with style and suspense, try Kurangu Bommai.) But the novelty in the narrative keeps you watching, and the end is very satisfying. Even at this glass-half-full level, Jiivi is a better bet than most films that come our way.