Cast: Udhayanidhi Stalin, Aari, Tanya Ravichandran, Shivani Rajashekar
Director: Arunraja Kamaraj
"If everyone is equal, who will be king?" is a question that defines Anubhav Sinha's 2019 film Article 15. A subordinate asks this question of Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), the protagonist, who, in turn, texts his activist-writer wife Aditi (Isha Talwar) for an answer. She replies, "Lekin raja banana hi kyun hai?" (Why have a king at all?). It helps the city-bred foreign-educated cop think about the realities of India's hinterlands deeper.
In Arunraja Kamaraj's Tamil adaptation of the film, titled Nenjuku Needhi — which is also the title of the autobiography of five-time Tamil Nadu chief minister and hero Udhayanidhi Stalin's grandfather, late M Karunanidhi — Adhithi replies, "the one who sees them all as equal."
It's rather telling because, in this film, Vijay Raghavan (Udhayanidhi Stalin) is the bonafide king. He has mass slow-motion shots, he walks in silhouette to the serendipitous background of a rising sun, and he even stands on stage at a republic day function and lectures the audience. Where Ayan Ranjan was a naive idealist with his own vulnerabilities and a character arc, Vijay Raghavan is a know-the-law-like-the-back-of-my-hand revolutionary, who can simply ignore direct orders from senior officers.
It also doesn't help that Udhayanidhi never once looks like the "Mountbatten" that his wife accuses him of being. Whether while ordering tea at a roadside stall or while laughing about the insult humour of the villagers, he looks perfectly at home, making it harder to empathise when he laments the state of the country, recalling his pride while studying in Europe.
But compromises to adapt Ayan Ranjan for Udhayanidhi Stalin's star personality are the least of Nenjuku Needhi's problems. Arunraja Kamaraj overwrites the film, punctuates it with montages of atrocity porn, stuffs it with dialogue explaining every last detail, adding additional causes to the film for good measure.
The film opens with the scene of a Dalit woman humiliated and hit for cooking food at a school. Upper caste people insult her and throw food for 150 people on the ground just because she made it. They publicly beat up the boys who came to her defence and threaten to hoist false cases on them. This, in and of itself, is enough to remind the audience of everyday atrocities. But Arunraja Kamaraj isn't satisfied. He follows this up with a montage song with scenes of manual scavenging, untouchability, discrimination and violence. He peppers these incidents throughout the film, scarcely including some murder investigation in between.
This doesn't make Nenjuku Needhi devoid of its moments. Arunraja Kamaraj goes the extra mile to adapt Article 15 to the Tamil socio-political milieu and its history of social justice movements. "Is the Ambedkar statue in the open or inside a cage?" Adhithi asks at one point. When Vijay says that it's out in the open, "then you've not reached the town," she says. Caged Ambedkar and Periyar appear later, astutely underlining the violence that these statues see. While discussing the caste positions of the various policemen, one of them identifies Vijay Raghavan as "Iyengar", while the other quickly corrects him saying, "sons don't inherit the mothers' caste, he's not even a Hindu." The conversation around "Theettu-na enna?" is a clever indictment of ideas.
Such observations about the unique play of caste in Tamil Nadu are there throughout the film. Dialogue writer Tamizharasan Pachamuthu is great with quips. But, overall, he struggles in building moving conversations that push the narrative forward. As a result, Nenjuku Needhi becomes a message padam with a bit of a police procedural thrown in instead of an investigative thriller where the hero experiences the brutalities of life in India for the first time. It mocks submissive, prostrating politicians, but fails to engage with the politics of discrimination in any real way. There is a selfish politician here and there, but a sharp critique of politics deliberately furthering discrimination is largely missing.
Without the strength of superlative performances, much of this falls flat. In this process, Nenjuku Needhi becomes stoic. It fails to move the audience in any meaningful way. It keeps us at a distance, never allowing us to feel anything despite Dibhu Ninan Thomas's rousing background score. The musician leaves no scene untouched by his sounds, trying hard to evoke both empathy and mass hero worship at the same time. It barely ever works, though.
In the context of Tamil cinema's history of anti-caste films, Nenjuku Needhi is rather weak. It is softer on the oppression perpetuated by the establishment. It is louder on the power of law. It is verbose about its themes and causes. Its hero is singularly invincible.