Director: Gautham Menon
Cast: Dhanush, Megha Akash
After a long time, there's a genuine, all-out romance on screen. I mean, yes, last week we got Adithya Varma but that, of course, was in a completely different zone. Enai Nokki Paayum Thota is about a girl and a boy and all the delicate shades in their relationship that slowly transforms from friendship to full-on love. The usual way to shoot a girl on a swing is to show her throwing her head back and laughing, imagine (just) her feet suddenly appearing in the frame, propelled by a swing that remains blocked by a wall! That's the kind of delicacy I'm talking about. We use the word "bloom" while talking about this genre: we say "a romance bloomed between them". That's the sense Gautham Vasudev Menon imbues this relationship with, the sense of something blossoming petal by fragrant petal.
They first meet when she is shooting for a silly period film. Lekha (Megha Akash) is over-made up. She's wearing a flapper dress from the 1920s, America's Jazz Age. And yet, there's something about her, and that something hooks Raghu (Dhanush; his face isn't young enough to play a college student anymore, but his genetic lottery, his apparent agelessness, ensures that we buy him almost totally). There's a charming tentativeness, here. He raises a hand as if to wave, but stops midway. There are a lot of (the expected) voiceovers in this film, but at this point, there's no "explanation" for Raghu's hesitation. It adds a nice dash of mystery to the man.
But she smiles at him, and we segue to the first number from Darbuka Siva's blockbuster album. It's great to see Dhanush in this unapologetically urban, upper-class mode. (Just wait till you see his family home in Pollachi.) Raghu is able to look through Lekha. He sees, for instance, that she is not interested in what she is doing. (The reluctant, exploited actress angle reminded me of Priya, where Sridevi played a similar role.) At first, there's awkwardness in the way he talks, even in his posture. But slowly, he gets to a point where he loses his inhibitions in front of her: he shows off his dance moves at a small birthday gathering that also has her friends.
This is a screenplay in which the i's have been dotted and the t's have been crossed with care. And with class. The bit where Raghu learns about Lekha's past could have been turned into an audience-pleasing "sad moment", but it's tossed off like some information you'd chat about in a party. The first embrace — a superbly staged scene — comes about not just because of Raghu and Lekha's mutual attraction, but also because of an external threat that hovers around her. Raghu doesn't just make Lekha feel loved. He makes her feel safe.
As in Geetu Mohandas's Moothon, the story flips between two timelines and two genre sensibilities — the grimy present, in neon-drenched noir colours, and the happier past. The first half is a romance punctuated by action-thriller rhythms, and post interval, we get an action-thriller punctuated by romance. And there's always a little hook that keeps you invested. For instance, how does Lekha get involved with Raghu's brother (M Sasikumar, having a lot of fun in this universe far-removed from the one in his films)? Or, what does this brother do?
Lekha vanishes for a while, and even her return involves an external threat — this love story is always staring into the wrong end of a loaded gun. I wished Lekha had been played by a more experienced actor. Megha Akash certainly looks the part (and it's fantastic that her name appears in a font that's equal in size to Dhanush's; her role is equally important) — but her odd-sounding dialogue delivery robs the character of some of the intensity it needs. But maybe a more experienced actor wouldn't have captured Lekha's helplessness so well. Maybe she wouldn't have made you (or Raghu) want to throw your arms around her and protect her — like in the amazing Maru vaarthai song sequence. It's a lullaby that appears at just the right place, and the pounding percussion resembles amplified heartbeats. How much Thamarai brings to this director's work! This lullaby is also a little love story. Hearing the phrases "vidiyaadha kaalaigal" or "mudiyaadha maalaigal", I imagined the many mornings and evenings a puzzled Raghu grappled with Lekha's absence.
From the lyrical title, Enai Nokki Paayum Thota has many of the GVM-isms you expect. We get the Mech. Engg. name drop. We get the loving parents. We get a cheeky nod to a detective film this director was supposed to do with Ajith. But most of all, we get the voiceovers that — perhaps for the first time — feel not just like inner thoughts, but also contain fragments of information that make us anticipate things. And — perhaps for the first time –these voiceovers have a reason for being. Both halves of the film begin with Raghu in a near-death situation ("innikki saaga mood illa, manasilla") and his life is flashing before his eyes — so the voiceovers seem like he is actually remembering things, like he is telling us about the life that is flashing before his eyes.
Take this other voiceover, about his brother: "Enga hero anna dhaan." It pays off, later, in the heroic entry the Sasikumar character gets. This is the kind of "introduction scene" a film would usually reserve for its leading man. (The brother also gets the "death of a lover" angle, which this director's leading men usually get.) Maybe that's why I felt the film could have used less of a star, a leading man who's less of a… hero. But then, actors like Dhanush give so much. This is a more delicate kind of acting than what Dhanush did in Asuran, because Gautham Menon flattens even the high moments — there aren't many showy scenes. And when a huge tragedy is underplayed, you see what a great actor can still do. The camera (credited to Jomon T John, Manoj Paramahamsa, SR Kathir) stays on Raghu's face, and Dhanush takes us right into the mind of a man who is in disbelief, someone who is still processing this turn of events that has come about after a brief burst of happiness. He takes a long time to come to grips with the situation and the director gives him that long time. He executes a small character arc in this stretch.
In fact, all through the film, Gautham Menon gives the moments a lot of time — nothing feels rushed. Even a "you've got to be kidding me" contrivance about a laptop comes about after we have spent a lot of time in the vicinity of that laptop. But after the specificity of the first half, the action-thriller portions are disappointingly generic. I wondered why the emotional beats weren't hit harder — especially Raghu's scenes with his brother. (I had the same reaction to Moothon. The romance is great; I wished the gritty stuff around it had been better.) None of the villains are memorable. They don't have the definition Raghu and Megha have — heck, even Raghu's parents, in their few brief scenes, seem more rounded than these interchangeable bad guys with their interchangeable badnesses.
This puts a huge strain on the second half, when Dhanush gets into "beast mode". I found my interest levels slipping even when Raghu and Megha were on screen. I wanted more of the person Sasikumar is and not just the professional he is. But even with its problems, this is still a massive improvement over Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada. Enai Nokki Paayum Thota is beautifully directed (does any other filmmaker use eyelines as well as Gautham Menon does?), and the pauses and holds contribute greatly to the mood. And, after what seems like ages, it's just nice to see a classy urban film on the big screen. And yeah, it's nice that, after his stint in the wilderness, this filmmaker is back, too.