Cast: Nayanthara, Kalaiarasan, Yogi Babu
Director: Sarjun KM
Very early on, Airaa sets us up for a full-blooded horror movie. The setting is Pollachi. Two cops enter a spookily underlit house and end up being ejected by force (and by… a force). Then, we come to Chennai, and there's a nifty bit of foreshadowing. A distracted lorry driver, at a traffic light, takes his foot off the brake and his vehicle bumps into the car in front, and this sets off a chain reaction that ends with a lady on a scooter, right at the front, being bumped into. The lady, of course, is Nayanthara (the character is named Yamuna). And this series of events unfurling from one random event — the distracted lorry driver — points to the chain reaction at the heart of this movie's mystery. Even if you don't instantly recognise this as The Butterfly Effect, the director, Sarjun KM, fills the screen with butterflies. The film is subtle like that.
Plus, that haunted Pollachi house belongs to Yamuna's grandmother. What's that connection? (Or, for that matter, why couldn't the ghost have haunted Yamuna in her home in Chennai?) The answers are meant to keep us gaping breathlessly, but Airaa — written by Priyanka Ravindran — is filled with a lot of dead air. An early scene has Yamuna's parents setting her up with a misogynistic pig, but the man is so outlandish that I laughed. Yamuna (understandably) walks away, but the man (not so understandably) still wants her. Her parents are delighted, and so she agrees to marry this man who thinks she sleeps around because she's in the media. This isn't about feminism. This is about characterisation. Would someone as bold as Yamuna suddenly give in like this? I mean, screenplay-wise, all you really need in that meeting-the-boy scene is an excuse to put Yamuna in a bad mood. Why not yank the boy out of the scenario, make it a work lunch, and have her boss make a pass at her or something?
Yamuna is this performer's default mode — a more-or-less statuesque face that says "I look fabulous and I don't want to mess up these looks by acting". But as Bhavani, she gives goofy grins. She screws up her face while crying. There's a charming naiveté we don't usually see in her
Yogi Babu — who's apparently there because no movie can be made without him (or a comment about his looks) these days — tries for some "comedy" that further dampens the mood. And Yamuna herself comes off like a flake. Her idea of a new business venture is to make fake haunted-house videos, which contributes very little to the proceedings. Sarjun seems to want to go "massier" than he did with his gritty first film, Echcharikkai – Idhu Manidhargal Nadamaadum Idam. It's understandable. He has a bigger star, now. But there's a thick line between pleasing the crowd and punishing them with characters you barely care about and a plot that takes a really long time to cohere. It's a good idea, in theory, to delay the revelations, to keep us guessing, but there's nothing else to hold on to.
A parallel track involves Amudhan (Kalaiyarasan) and a series of mysterious deaths — but these killings are so random (none of them results in a solid set piece) that they don't come together in our heads cleanly. It's a good thing to not want to over-explain, but here, the drama is under-nourished. The script contrivances are their own kind of Butterfly Effect. When Amudhan decides on a change of plans, wouldn't he at least call or write a note to his girl, so she knows what's happening? The film treats that track as though it were set in the nineteenth century, when you lost touch with people when they moved away. Slowly, it becomes clear that Airaa is not so much a horror film as a ghost story. It becomes a bit better. A bit.
There's a terrific idea at the core, one that goes back to wronged-woman films like Carrie or even Naanum Oru Penn. In U-Turn, for instance, a female spirit seeks vengeance because something specific resulted in her death. But here, the cause/effect is not so simple — and the best thing about Airaa is its contention that a lifetime of taunts and insults and rejection and self-pity and an utter lack of self-worth can make a person crazed. That person could easily become, say, a psycho killer, reclaiming "justice" through his or her killings. And Nayanthara does some of her best work as Bhavani, the meek, dark-complexioned girl in the flashback. Yamuna is this performer's default mode — a more-or-less statuesque face that says "I look fabulous and I don't want to mess up these looks by acting". But as Bhavani, she gives goofy grins. She screws up her face while crying. There's a charming naiveté we don't usually see in her. That turns out to be the more interesting ghost story, imagining Nayanthara possessed by the spirit of the better actress she apparently keeps hidden within her.
PS: A few SJW-type questions will come up, so let me address them. Should a fair-complexioned actress play a dark-complexioned character? In this case, I'd say yes. For one, that's why it's called "acting", or else we should be outraging about Kamal Haasan in Guna, too. More importantly, when the difference in complexion becomes the crux of how one perceives oneself (and is perceived by others), I'd rather not have an actual dark-complexioned actress being cast opposite someone as conventionally beautiful as Nayanthara, and end up holding the shorter end of the stick (as per this screenplay). That would be more reinforcement that only Nayanthara-like lookers can be heroines. I'm not saying that's not already the case. I'm just looking at this specific instance, this specific movie. I wish Bhavani hadn't been dark-complexioned, as the screenplay does give the character another reason to be hated — because she brings bad luck. That would have been enough, really. But that would have also been a very different movie.