Cast: Vijay, SJ Suryah, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Sathyaraj, Nithya Menen
With Mersal (Astonishment), director Atlee continues with his mission to simultaneously giganticise and deflavourise beloved older films. If Raja Rani was an overblown Mouna Raagam and Theri was a watered-down Chatriyan, Mersal is Aboorva Sagotharargal remade as a "mass" movie. I know what you're thinking. Isn't Aboorva Sagotharargal itself a "mass" movie? Not quite. It was a masala movie, and comparing it with Mersal is one way to understand the difference. Kamal Haasan played three characters. Vijay plays three… versions of Vijay, constantly waving at the audience. It's Tamil cinema's answer to an election rally. The screen is the Jeep. The screenplay is the manifesto. Our tickets, the votes. And the hero? Our next thalaivan (leader).
At least, that's what the dialogues suggest. Vijay's opening scene sees him doing one-armed pushups to an MGR song: Unnai arindhaal from Vettaikaaran, which is also the name of a Vijay movie. (Is it, thus, a nostalgic hat tip to MGR or a fan-appeasing nod to Vijay, especially in a film that names him Thalapathy and has him dancing in front of a theatre called… Thirumalai? Welcome to the mind-scrambling, self-reflexive world of the "mass" movie.) At least, there's no confusion with the pro-poor messages — that's pure MGR. (GST gets bashed even more than the villain's henchmen.) AR Rahman's song Aalaporaan Thamizhan (A Tamilian is going to rule…) hammers home the political text. If things go per plan, all of this is going to be parsed to pieces, years from now, by a Ph.D. candidate working on a thesis titled "How a Cinema Thalaiva Became a Political Thalaiva."
Atlee, though, is a disciple of Shankar. He believes in his guru's trademarked technique of the Second-half Flashback. Which goes on. And on. And on
The story is right out of Aboorva Sagotharargal. A father is brutally murdered. A son takes revenge. The other son is thought to be the killer. And we get to the other difference between the two films. Kamal Haasan knew the father's killing was merely the seed for the story, so his screenplay wisely dispensed with this arc before the opening credits, leaving the rest of the film to the sons. Atlee, though, is a disciple of Shankar. He believes in his guru's trademarked technique of the Second-half Flashback. Which goes on. And on. And on. Without it, the film's running time (170 minutes!) would be the size of the vertically challenged Kamal character.
Strangely, this is the best stretch of Mersal. The lack of newness (we are always five steps ahead of the narrative) is compensated for by rich production values (the flashback begins in Punjab and moves to Madurai) and some genuine chemistry between Vijay and Nithya Menen, who plays his wife. (After 24, Menen seems to have become the go-to heroine to play Young Mother Who Gets Killed.) I sensed co-writer KV Vijayendra Prasad's (Eega, Magadheera, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and, most recently, the Baahubali films) hand in this flashback — there's a sense of solid masala world-building, like when Vijay tells his son his How I Met Your Mother story even as his wife thrashes about in a hospital, struggling to deliver their second child. As with all masala movies, there's a sense of myth that could have made this movie bigger — but Atlee isn't interested.
Consider, again, Aboorva Sagotharargal. How effectively it sets up the mothers of the two Kamals who grow up in different surroundings. (The circus atmosphere is replaced, here, by magic. The other Vijay is a doctor.) In Mersal, despite that running time, we barely get a sense of how Kovai Sarala stumbled on Vijay as a child. But what am I thinking? Of course, it's futile to expect significant female character development in a "mass" movie. Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Kajal Aggarwal get a song each and a few perfunctory scenes in the first half. The second half begins with a scene featuring Kajal. "She's back," I thought. But it turns out, it's only so we don't forget her. The next time we see her is at the end of the film, shedding a few tears outside a courtroom, as Vijay is cuffed and led away. He doesn't even look at her. He has eyes only for his adoring masses, to whom he is delivering an electoral promise… er, dialogue. Free medical facilities and so forth. Reduced ticket rates would have sounded better, no?
This isn't about logic. This is just about making me believe that you believe in whatever you're saying. That's how you get votes
If I sound weary, it's because of the expectation — I'm wrong, I know! — that a "mass" movie could also be a masala movie. MGR's films managed this fairly well. Here, we just get punchy scenes meant to work in isolation. Take the one where Vijay deplanes in Paris and walks into the airport in a veshti. He's strip-searched by racist officials, and later, when an airport worker tells him he wouldn't have been treated so had he worn pants, he says, "Ammava maatha mudiyadhu." (I cannot change my mother.) I caught my breath, but it turns out he wasn't talking about Amma, upper-case. It's lower case — he was referring to Mother Tamil. But soon, he's wearing faded jeans in a song sequence. This isn't about logic. This is just about making me believe that you believe in whatever you're saying. That's how you get votes.
Vijay is one actor who seems to be getting younger on screen. He moves beautifully in the dance sequences. He even manages an effective dramatic bit, when he bursts into a Kamal-like wail when his wife dies. But he's let down by the writing. Take a look at this meant-to-be punch line. "Boat Club la walking pora unakke ivvalavu [thimiru]na Marina Beach la jogging pora enakku evvalavu irukkum?" How does this even make sense? Unless he's alluding not just to the beach but to the recent, ground-breaking protest that unfolded there. It's hard to say. I thought he'd have more fun with the magician role. It's tailor-made for his persona. But Atlee doesn't do light very well. Or maybe he's just not interested. Maybe he's decided he'd rather be campaign manager than director, projecting an image rather than creating characters that are worth investing in, that are fun.
The only other actor who gets some footage is SJ Suryah, who's the villain. He's terrific in a scene where he walks into Vijay's house, in a checked suit, and threatens him. It's the one time the film shows some panache. Blink, and you may miss Sathyaraj, who plays a cop — though the screenplay treats him solely as someone whose questions can get a flashback going. He sheds tears listening to Vijay's sad story. Atlee is a big believer in reaction shots. (Why bother with a screenplay that makes you feel when a character's face can tell you exactly what you should have felt?) When Vijay performs some basic tricks, the reaction shots suggest things never before done in the history of magic. I'll tell you what's real magic. That we keep voting for these films, time and again, without question. PC Sorcar has nothing on that.