In Jean-Luc Godard's first feature, he reflected on the influence of American Cinema and its genres on French Cinema. His ideas then spurred a movement that gradually migrated back to America which led to Tarantino making Pulp Fiction. It is almost a cliche how Pulp Fiction is every cinephile director's inspiration. It was definitely Gautham Vasudev Menon's when he made Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa. (The protagonist's room has not one but two Pulp Fiction posters alongside those of Tarantino's other films). Its influence on films like Super Deluxe and Ulidavaru Kandanthe is more direct. However, GVM took from Pulp Fiction, what Tarantino took from Breathless, characters battling with the genre, and their tropes.
GVM chose the most prevalent genre in South Indian cinema at the time, romance. The title, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa translates to 'Will you cross the skies and come?'. This is apt considering what romance as a genre demands out of its characters and how, in that process, romanticizes them. The skeleton of this movie is consciously the same as any typical romance movie. The first act is dedicated to establishing the cliche. The guy who is hopelessly in love and ready to go to any lengths for the girl, the parents who are hostile towards him for a reason (either caste or religion) and a girl (Jessie) who is taciturn, although not hostile, towards the boy's (Karthik's) advances.
However, GVM slowly starts to reveal why Jessie is the most important character of this movie. She's uncomfortable with her genre and where the movie is taking her. In the iconic cafe scene, you see how the movie would've played out if Jessie gave in to the genre. This is also when you can start seeing that Karthik divides into 'auteur existing outside the narrative' and 'character bound by the narrative'. He feeds off the hopelessness of the character, which brings hope for the auteur.
When he drops her off in the first act, you see an antique store in the background, alluding to the romanticism that has convinced Karthik and the audience that all will end well. In later acts, you can see that the shop has been demolished. At the interval, I knew I was seeing something remarkable but still felt uncomfortable with that idea. The movie had just finished establishing its skeleton but had already diverged significantly from the typical structure. It was a treat to watch GVM build on that skeleton and fiddle with the genre.
Even if the film is a meta-narrative on the typical romance, it still retains its core as a tender romance. This is reminiscent of Haneke's Funny Games, which offers a critique of stylized violence whilst giving us a spine-chilling experience of its own. The chemistry between the characters is consciously frustrated and awkward yet warm. This is why Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa has translated so well to the audience.
GVM is also very clear that it is a musical and A.R. Rahman's name is above his on the poster. Hosanna and Aaromale are classic Rahman. Aaromale packs in so much narrative yet slips like butter. Rahman proves yet again that his songs are as cinematic as they musical. The song complements what is going on onscreen and sometimes intentionally breaks its rhythm of the song to heighten the cinematic experience. The song and dance also help establish the cliche. Jessie's choreography differs as the character grows.
As Aaromale ends and the final scenes begin, GVM completes meta-narrative. He blurs lines and then redraws them as an artist who is self-reflecting. He frequently shifts between cinema as a reflection of fantasy and reality. The cinema is born out of the auteur's reality but also includes his romanticism of reality. Adding another layer to this reflection is that the Telugu version of this movie, Ye Maaya Chesave, has a happy ending instead. The more important question that GVM seems to be asking is: Does the auteur exist in his movie or his reality? The fact that the movie ends on a shot of Karthik's film poster, which then morphs into the actual film's poster should help you find your own answers.
Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa works for various reasons. Its impact is undeniable and has gone on to influence other innovative works in the genre like 96. After 10 years, it's celebrated in Tamil cinema as a romance but it is rarely discussed for its cinematic feats and eccentricities. Maybe that is a result of GVM's conscious tightrope walking between romance and realism. Above everything, it is a masterclass in sophisticated character writing and genre subversion while also being a beautiful love story. A fulfilling and grounded film for the romantic and a revelatory experience for the critic.