Imagine this situation: You are the hero of a big movie, and in the film a girl you know has been kidnapped. What would you do? You'd probably find and threaten a few low-level kidnappers through whom you'd get to know the next rung in the hierarchy of kidnappers. Slowly, you go from rung to rung until you reach the ultimate villain (very smartly played by Vinay Rai). And you'd single-handedly fight the villain and save the girl. But Nelson says that even with that exact series of steps, a movie can be very different.
With a terrific supporting cast of Archana, Ilavarasu and Yogi Babu, he treats a family tragedy (the girl's kidnapping) like a whacky comedy. And he shows that you can take a hero known for his smile and make him serious throughout the film. The only time Sivakarthikeyan's Varun smiles is during the hit 'Chellamma' song (and it's in character at that point). Throughout the movie, he doesn't even crack one single smile.
Imagine a Sivarakarthikeyan film where he doesn't crack a single smile; that famous grin of his that you see on posters is completely absent. In the very first scene, we see him as a doctor in a war zone treating two patients: an Indian colonel on the verge of dying and a terrorist. He decides to treat the terrorist who's not as grievously wounded because there's a chance he might have vital information. This trait defines him throughout the film; he's not a kattipudi vaithiyam kind of a guy. He's unemotional and utterly logical.
Varun even says that you can't do an operation if you reveal your feelings — whether it be an actual operation or saving a kidnapped girl. A big salute to Sivakarthikeyan for playing a robotic character without worrying if his fans will still like him. With Vijay's alcoholism in Master and Ajith's bipolarity in Nerkonda Paarvai, it's really great to see our big heroes get adventurous in their choice of roles.
But the real hero of the film is director Nelson. He seems to have thought about how to make every scene different and avoid cliches: Why should the hero always fight alone and save the day single-handedly? Why can't he have help from other people? Also, why should the hero and heroine always fall in love in the first half? Couldn't it happen at a much later stage too? Typically, we expect duets in the first half when the energy level is high. But instead, we get a sad song where we see slow-mo shots of the kidnapped girl's family — and we feel how much pain they are in.
In many ways, I was reminded of Nelson's debut Kolamaavu Kokila because there was a conscious effort to be different and avoid cliches in that film too: There was no hero, and the whole film revolved around the heroine whose mother had lung cancer. Yet, the film was treated as a whacky comedy. At a basic level, Doctor is certainly like Kolamaavu Kokila because it takes a serious issue and goes in a totally (and tonally) different direction. The issue of lung cancer became a black-comedy-cum-drama in Kolamavu Kokila. In Doctor, the serious issue of human trafficking becames a black-comedy-cum-thriller.
Anirudh really gets Nelson: You get both the tones of a black comedy and a thriller, but in very different instrumental shades. Cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan had made Kolamavu Kokila a very colorful film (with neon, etc.). But Doctor is a quasi-realistic film and the look by Vijay Kartik Kannan works beautifully.
But I also faced an issue in Doctor that I had with Kolamavu Kokila. On paper, the screenplay would have been fantastic with all the humour and cliche-breaking. But on screen, the tones sometimes clash, and the mood falls flat when things get serious. There are pacing issues too and the scenes needed a little more energy, a little more zing. Nelson lets every moment linger a beat or two more than necessary, and it makes a lot of scenes less than what they could have been. You're still appreciative about the lack of cliche, and you're enjoying the individual jokes, but you also feel it should have worked much better in its entirety.
But Doctor is still a solid entertainer with many memorable moments: the profit-sharing joke, Yogi Babu's hand-slapping game, how the villain stages a trump card at the breakfast table at a resort, and — best of all, something I didn't expect — the way the hero stages a kidnapping. There's also a terrific action scene in a metro train which is staged with so much humour; minute-to-minute, you just can't predict what's going to happen.
There were so many times in Doctor when I wondered how Nelson was imagining such things. Without doubt, Nelson is a very unique and individual director — whether it's his thinking or the writing, he has a unique signature. So many scenes in Doctor are so fantastically imaginative that the film really raises your hopes about Nelson's next film with Vijay.