Nerkonda Paarvai Movie Review: A Subdued, Dignified Ajith Powers A Solid “No Means No” Drama

H Vinoth's biggest accomplishment is the air of restraint. He doesn't amplify the volume and "mass"-ify Pink. He respects the source material
Nerkonda Paarvai Movie Review: A Subdued, Dignified Ajith Powers A Solid “No Means No” Drama

Language: Tamil

Cast: Ajith, Shraddha Srinath, Rangaraj Pandey

Director: H Vinoth

Reviewing H Vinoth's previous outing, Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, I wrote: The thing to note about DSP Theeran (Karthi) is that he's a realistic cop—at least to the extent that a big-budget Tamil film, with a big hero, will allow for realism. You could say the same about Bharath Subramanian (Ajith Kumar), the protagonist of Vinoth's Pink remake, Nerkonda Paarvai: he's a realistic lawyer — at least to the extent that a big-budget Tamil film, with a much bigger hero, will allow for realism. There's no fanfare when the star's name appears in the opening credits. Even his reveal is subdued—we see Bharath in a hoodie, shot from behind. And when the camera swings around, we see a tired, middle-aged man with a thick white beard and whiter hair. Still, he's not…ordinary. Sitting on a park bench, he stares hard at a jogger, Meera (Shraddha Srinath)—it's the nerkonda paarvai of the title. (He's bipolar.) A little later, he flashes that stare again at a hospital attendant, who backs away in fear. The stare says: "This is not Veeram or Viswasam, but I'm still 'mass' and don't you forget it!"

Why is Bharath this way, almost unwilling to speak for the longest time (and unwilling to give the star's fans a reason to cheer at punchlines)? Why are Meera and her friends, Famita (Abhirami Venkatachalam) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang), running scared after meeting some boys at a music concert? Who's the older man Famita visits early on? The answers come slowly. With its little cutaways, the film breathes. You know the answers, of course, if you've seen Pink. You know that the girls—a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian—are representational of all womanhood. You know the central conceit, too. Friendly behaviour is not an invitation to sex. Smiling is not consent. Having a drink or cracking an adult joke does not mean a woman is advertising herself as "available". In short, no means NO!

The screenplay follows the Pink template pretty faithfully, but it feels new for Tamil cinema. (The event that sets off the story is shown only during the closing credits.) Even the opening feels different. After a (badly staged) rock concert, Meera, Famita and Andrea decide to spend time with a few boys, friends of an acquaintance. But we just see Meera saying hello. We don't see the boys. This is something from serial-killer movies, where the potential victim recognises someone and greets him, but this person is hidden from the audience—and it fits here, because these boys are about to inflict similar horrors. They force themselves on Meera and her friends. Meera breaks a bottle on Adhik's (Arjun Chidambaram) head, and flees with her friends. The boys go to court.

The dice are loaded. Like always, the boys have political connections. They have the cops in their pocket. They have a smug, self-righteous lawyer (Rangaraj Pandey), a stand-in for all Indians who get all Arnab Goswami on women's personal lives. (The neighbourhood wants to know…!) Plus, Meera isn't… pure, the way Tamil cinema defines the word, the way Tamil cinema defines its women. Coming on the heels of Aadai, Nerkonda Paarvai is another reminder that the women out there in the world aren't always like the cutesy, virginal, or even likeable heroines we get in our movies. Meera, Famita and Andrea are just middle-class working women who cling together for support in the big, bad city. Literally so. Several shots show these three hugging or leaning against one another, whereas the boys are always at a distance from each other. These women protect and nourish each other, becoming the family they have left behind in order to pursue a career. 

But behind the big-city-girl boldness, we sense the fears that surround them, the fears that all women feel. When Meera gets a threatening call (which is nicely contrasted with a threatening call from Bharath's past life) from Adhik and his friends, her tone is aggressive. But soon after, she runs home, as though afraid of actually running into them. Even the less-macho men pose a problem. Take the neighbour—a man—who stands in his balcony and looks towards the girls' flat. Had this flat been occupied by three unmarried men, would he be looking the same way? And the male cop that Meera goes to in order to file a complaint subtly intimidates and threatens and slut-shames her, ending with this joke of a reassurance: kaaval thurai ungal nanban. This actor is superb, as are the other people who come in small parts, like the girls' kindly house owner or the female cop at court, who is used only for reaction shots. Without uttering a word, she becomes the surrogate of all women imprisoned by Tamil-cinema morality.

Vinoth's biggest accomplishment is the air of restraint. When I saw the trailer, with that action scene (more on that later), I thought he'd amplify the volume and "mass"-ify Pink. But with a few exceptions, he honours the source material. A huge shout-out to Ajith, too, for not insisting the screenplay be tailored a certain way. When Meera is abducted by Adhik's men, the stage is set for that big action scene from the trailer—but there's something else in store. Unlike the usual "hero movie" that veers towards vigilante justice, we keep seeing agents of the law: cops and lawyers and judges. Only the court will decide what is right or wrong, Bharath says—and these aren't empty words. The only time he fights back is when he is attacked. Otherwise, he doesn't even threaten the villains outside the court. That is his only battleground.

In fact, the only times the film falters is when it tries to lean on traditional Tamil-cinema beats like action and romance. The fight scene isn't bad (the set-up using Bharath's doctor is a fabulous masala moment) and it plays to the gallery in a way that doesn't break the character—but it reduces bipolarity to the equivalent of a radioactive spider, something that imbues a man with superhuman strength. The condition doesn't come of much use later, even though we are given signs that Bharath may lose it in court. Even worse is the flashback with Vidya Balan. I loved that a Tamil film talks about a late pregnancy, and that the character's end is not what we usually expect in the case of a filmy cop's or filmy lawyer's wife, but the whole angle is so awkwardly shoehorned in that you just want it to be over with. It adds to the sense that the film's pacing is a bit off, even though not a single scene is unwanted. (Some of this could be the déjà vu from having watched Pink.)

In a sense, Nerkonda Paarvai is a companion piece to Viswasam. Once again, Ajith redeems himself by saving a woman after failing to protect one. It's an admirable admission of vulnerability for a megastar, and if you include Yennai Arindhaal (where an entire segment was devoted to him and his daughter), there's the sense of wanting to make more than empty-calorie "mass" movies like, uh, Veeram or Vivegam. Are these just one-offs, or a change of career trajectory? Time will tell—but as Bharath, Ajith gives one of his best performances. He is subdued, dignified—like the courtroom scenes. (Instead of creating an atmosphere of fireworks, Yuvan Shankar Raja's minimal score underlines the pathos.) Bharath doesn't raise his voice—he snarls under his breath. His (verbal) punches land lightly, but with impact. Like any good "issue film," Nerkonda Paarvai makes us think about things without lecturing at us. Which isn't to say the film has no lectures. It's just that they aren't pointed at us. They are addressed to the judge, in court, which may be the only place oratory doesn't sound odd anymore.

The women, too, are top-notch. Shraddha Srinath turns into a tight bundle of shame in a moving scene that highlights the difference between our public and private selves. (Meera is asked to repeat a lewd joke in court and she cannot because her father is present.) Andrea Tariang's porcelain delicacy adds a touch of "otherness" to the narrative—yet, she's the most traditionally feminine of the three. And the expressive Abirami Venkatachalam makes Famita's inner fury a potent weapon. Her outburst in court may seem out of character, but then, you remember a similar outburst to Adhik, over the phone, earlier. It's a useful reminder that if women are like men in all ways, and if Adhik has buttons that can be pushed, then so does Famita. Like Pink, Nerkonda Paarvai doesn't set out to valorise women. It just says treat them the way you'd treat men.

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