Vaaranam Aayiram came in like a fresh breeze when Tamil cinema was witnessing a clutter of formulaic masala potboilers with Thirupachi and/or Ghilli structure, loud family dramas and love stories with age-old tropes. Vaaranam Aaiyram stood tall even among those new wave paradigm shifts heralded by Ameer, Mysskin, Sasikumar, Cheran, Balaji Shaktivel and Vasanthabalan that came in during the time. These films with their raw treatment, neo-native setting and tragic ending found an audience among the super appreciative Tamil audience. When this formula was about to get reinforced as the hotcake in Tamil cinema, Gautham Vasudev Menon marked his second collaboration with Surya through this inimitable quintessential classic.
Even though the film gets categorised as a drama, I find it difficult to assign a specific genre to the film because of the way the screenplay is structured. Vaaranam Aayiram has everything that happens in a person's life, a major portion of which is taken from GVM's life, as mentioned by the director himself. While in most cases, it is one single conflict that drives a film forward to finally reach the climatic resolution, Vaaranam Aayiram stands apart for the way GVM plugs multiple conflicts at different intervals. This is analogous to our own lives in the way we keep battling hurdles one after the other. The screenplay is so contained that it becomes a beautiful concoction of conflicts: the conflict of an unfinished mission, the conflict of growing up, the conflict of studies, love, money, loss and the conflict of reinventing yourself. This makes Vaaranam Aayiram a poetic romanticisation of life and its stages.
The film sparkles with authenticity since it comes right from the maker's heart. Irrespective of how small it is, every single frame and every single dialogue has a soul. GVM took inspiration from Forrest Gump and the tragedy of his father's death had a major influence on him while writing. Apart from Forrest Gump, I found an occasional, uncanny resemblance to Tim Burton's Bigfish, another personal favourite. To make a film that chronicles life without an explicit 'story' is the biggest risk an Indian filmmaker can take considering the low probability of its ability to convince an audience, who is alien to such structure, that this is also what a film can look like. The only contemporaries that follow a feebly similar pattern are Autograph (2004), Attakathi (2012) and Premam (2015) but all three of the films concentrate on the protagonist's love life at different stages. Considering the huge canvas and multi-conflict narrative, GVM pulled off his own version of 'Boyhood', something we thought would be possible only by a Mani Ratnam. And that's the reason Vaaranam Aayiram remains to be one of its kind.
The film was high on the nostalgia factor. Be it the shoes (Forrest Gump inspired) that kid Surya wears while he walks along the road adorned with dry brown leaves, the Wrangler jeans which he sports during his school days, the blue and yellow striped collared t-shirt seen in the song "Yethi Yethi", Surya's hairstyles at different stages, the books stacked in Surya's room or the shot portraying Surya reading his dad's letters. All of them glimmered with relatability. Even the college portion which occupied only 3 minutes of the film's runtime is filled with life. Surya has to improve the family's financial condition and take care of his dad's deteriorating health before pursuing his love, a cinematic scenario uncommon for the escapist in all of us. We empathised with the slow degradation of Surya into a drug addict. We envisioned our own friendships when Krishnan and Malini supported Surya during his breakdown and withdrawal. We felt uplifted when Surya decided to travel and find what was within him. I don't want to mention how huge an inspiration the film was to the youth back then to either take up guitar and/or hit the gym.
I was done with my first semester of engineering when the film got released in 2008. Missing the film in cinemas remains one of my biggest regrets in life. Although I follow Tamil cinema, I rarely watched it in theatres back then. I ended up watching a bad-quality print of the film online a week before Mumbai terror attacks. But what I got was a bucketful of dopamine kicks because of the cultural resonance in the film. Funnily, I had read somewhere that the film was apparently a horror one and was expecting a twist in the film that in no way looked like a horror flick as it progressed.
One cannot talk about the film without mentioning its soulful music, what I consider Harris Jayaraj's career-best album, and the outstanding performance of the cast. I had the whole album on my Nokia N73 downloaded from a major mp3 download platform of those times and used to listen to it even before the release of the film. This liking turned into an eternal love after watching the film. Surya single-handedly shouldered the film with a stellar performance, again, what I consider his career-best. Sameera's beauty was a revelation. The character relationships showed unique dynamics, something that we've seen only in Mani Ratnam's characters.
Vaaranam Aayiram truly hit us like a thunderbolt.