Cast: Vijay, Pooja Hedge, Aparna das, Yogi Babu, Selvaraghavan, Redin Kingsley
There's a fairly straightforward throughline in Beast that ensures this new Vijay film doesn't suffer from the same problems you've come to expect from the superstar's films. In an effort to make a Vijay film a "complete package" with a little bit of everything, especially since Atlee took over, you sense the makers throwing a lot at you assuming some of it sticks. But with Beast's allegiance to almost every single trope you expect in a typical hostage drama, you get a focussed film without the flab and the excesses that make parts of Vijay's films tiring.
Let's take the manner in which the film segues into 'Arabic Kuthu', the monster hit that assumes double duties of both an intro song and Vijay's main dance number. It's around 15 minutes into the film after what's inventively a rather melancholic beginning. Ex-RAW Agent Veeraraghavan (Vijay) has to attend a wedding with his shrink (we'll get back to this point later) when a sudden meet-cute with Preethi (Pooja Hedge) is treated with a kind of humour where its genericness becomes a flavour. The scene itself isn't really special but at least it's Preethi who is making the first move to propose to Veeraghavan and not because she's smitten by him. She just needs an excuse to call off her engagement and time's running out.
By using the idea of her impending engagement as a recurring joke, Nelson manages to remove the need for a love angle that feels long and forced, while also placing on 'Arabic Kuthu' the additional duties of a love duet. Veeraraghavan and Preethi get together soon enough and the film doesn't even try to make the song feel like an organic extension of a scene. In what turns into a dream sequence, the setting, the clothes and the mood changes briskly and we're primed for a film so devoted to the idea of being "jolly" that it's almost offensive to take it seriously.
Shedding this seriousness is vital to Beast because it begins with what could have been the tragic second-half flashback. It's an inventive idea to finish Veeraraghavan's back story so early on because it removes the need for a genre shift later on, making the film's dark comedic tone consistent thereafter. And for what it's worth, it's still a big deal to begin a Vijay film with his character's admission to having mental health issues after a particularly traumatic event. Like in Master, his change in behaviour is a result of overwhelming guilt from having caused harm to an innocent, but over here, the theme of redemption isn't as central as the character's deep trust issues towards the government (both officials and politicians) in general. But the mental health angle is hardly explored beyond this point, even though there's a terrific idea there about how children crying triggers extreme emotions in Veeraraghavan.
This again is something you have to get used to because Nelson doesn't ever want his film to be more than 30 seconds away from the next big joke or sarky wisecrack. It is the same principle he repurposes from his earlier films and it is the reason why so many people love his work. Which means that even when 200 people are being held captive inside a mall or when an 80-year-old lady's brains get blasted out of her skull, we're still waiting for Yogi Babu or Redin Kingsley or VTV Ganesh or Pooja Hegde or Selvaraghavan to say something funny about anyone worth making fun of.
But it's also overwhelmingly true that Nelson doesn't appear as fresh a director as he did during last year's Doctor. To me, the director's most marked ability is the way he creates dozens of goofballs as characters and then inserts them seamlessly into the screenplay. Maybe he had the time then to both write these roles and then also find the quirkiest people on earth to play them. But with Beast, you feel the strains of a man trying to repeat himself because he's running out of ideas.
Which is perhaps why actors like Yogi Babu and Redin aren't able to recreate the riot that they were in Doctor. Even Sathish, who gets a lot of hilarious writing, isn't quite able to 'catch the meter' of an odd Nelson character. The result is a set of sequences that work only when the jokes land. For me, the most consistent supporting character throughout the film was VTV Ganesh who fits perfectly into Nelson's universe. Ganesh's hilariously ageist gag keeps delivering the goods through dry spells and it's one of the few consistent tracks that maintain the film's tone (unlike the clingy fiancé jokes).
Yet the film never becomes flippant although it always borders on it. More than an Indian James Bond as the film describes itself to be, I found the inherent theme of the film closer in spirit to James Cameron's True Lies. This is in part because it leaves you with audacious visuals like Vijay driving a car through a mall and that of F-16 zooming past you, but it's also got to do with how there's an exaggerated, caricature-like atmosphere where the audaciousness is fully owned. And even when you feel stuck craving for a little drama, there's always one clever plot twist or a crazy action scene that reminds you for the 100th time that this isn't a film to be taken seriously.
So when you feel like the portrayal of the terrorists, the corrupt politician or even the good Muslim (Selvaraghavan plays Althaf Hussain) could be problematic, it demands that you step back and notice how the film has made fun of everyone. Add to this the feather-like lightness of the plot (revealed almost entirely in the trailer), resting on a super relaxed Vijay and Anirudh whose Red Bull-infused themes blow up the screen when the energy drops, and we get a Beast of an entertainer in what appears to be the body of a beauty (Manoj Paramahamsa is the DOP). It is focused, unfussy and unsentimental without the weight of a million farmers to save or the womenkind to empower. It's a film that's set in a world best described as 'Jolly O Gymkhana'.