Navarasa Falls Short, Despite Superb Performances And Laudable Effort

Navarasa Falls Short, Despite Superb Performances And Laudable Effort

It’s a gathering of greats but none of the films are flat-out brilliant

Director: Priyadarshan,Vasanth, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Bejoy Nambiar, Karthik Subbaraj, Sarjun KM, Karthick Naren, Arvind Swamy, Rathindran R. Prasad
Writers: Pattukottai Prabakar, Selvaa, Madhan Karky, Someetharan, Arpita Chatterjee
Cinematography: PC Sreeram, Santosh Sivan, Sudarshan Srinivasan, Sathyan Sooryan, Shreyaas Krishna, Harshvir Oberai, Sujith Sarang, N. K. Ekambaram, Viraj Singh
Edited by: Sangathamizhan E., Vivek Harshan, Prasanna GK, Anthony
Cast: Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, RevathyPrakash Raj, Siddarth, Parvathy, Delhi Ganesh, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Anjali, Yogi Babu, Aditi Balan, Remya Nambeesan, Poorna, Prayaga Martin, Rythvika, Suriya, Arvind Swamy, Prasanna, Atharva, Bobby Simha, Ashok Selvan, Nedumudi Venu, Kishore
Streaming on: Netflix

Navarasa is arguably the mother of Indian anthologies – nine films based on the nine emotional states prescribed by the Natya Shastra. Shorts, most around half-an-hour long, boast of staggering talent – directors ranging from Priyadarshan to Karthik Subbaraj to Gautham Vasudev Menon; actors such as Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Revathi, Prakash Raj, Siddharth, Parvathy Thiruvothu and Arvind Swamy, who also makes his directorial debut with Roudhram or 'Anger'; DOPs like Santosh Sivan and P. C. Sreeram; and music directors including A. R. Rahman and Santhosh Narayanan. The titles, stylised black-and-white close-ups of actors expressing the rasas, have been created by Bharatbala. The series has been co-produced by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan. The artists and technicians worked without payment, with the proceeds going to help daily-wage workers suffering during the pandemic. The sheer size of the project and the effort is laudable.

It's a gathering of greats but none of the films are flat-out brilliant. They range from competent to bewildering – case in point, Project Agni by Karthick Naren. It features Arvind Swamy, having a bad hair day, as some sort of maverick scientist who discovers that our reality is pre-programmed. Naren tips his hat to Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick. Swami is a solid actor but even he can't infuse life into banal dialogue like: My mind needs to be free and enlightened.  And his lab where he creates his breakthrough invention borders on comical, with green liquid, a big clock and a contraption with wires that he must wear on his head.

But Swami shines as a director with Roudhram, which is about a young boy, Arul, who bludgeons a man with a hammer. The film begins with snapshots of Chennai, where the story is set. The colors are lush and bright – Sivan ably distills the beauty of these hardscrabble lives. Watch a key scene in which billowing pink curtains underscore the sadness of what Arul is seeing. As the police investigate the crime, the story flashes back to what made Arul do what he did. The story suggests that anger is passed down from generation to generation and hardcoded into our DNA. And Geetha Kailasam as a domestic worker who does what she must to give her children a few moments of happiness, is moving. This is easily among the best films in the anthology.

I also enjoyed Payasam directed by Vasanth S. Sai. The film, based on a story by T Janakiraman, focuses on the rasa of disgust. The story is set in 1965 amidst a Brahmin wedding in Kumbakonam. Delhi Ganesh is superb as a 77-year-old man Samanadhu, who is deeply envious of his successful nephew. The film works on two parallel tracks – the joyous preparations in the house for the wedding and this man's curdled envy and resentment at his nephew's good fortune.  Samanadhu's petty responses – at one point, he takes longer to pray so that he can avoid going to the wedding – are human but eventually, he crosses a line.

The most anticipated short among the nine – Gautham Vasudev Menon's Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, which means 'Tugging At My Guitar Strings' – is also among the weakest. This is a story about sringara or love. Suriya plays a Grammy Award-nominated musician who narrates his story of instant attraction with a singer, played by Prayaga Rose Martin. Suriya is a charismatic actor but he is miscast as a hipster indie music man. Still, he does his best to pull off cringey lines like: When you meet a woman and she says exactly the things your mother says, you know you're a goner, hook, line and sinker. The music by Karthik is sparkling but there was more chemistry in the proposal scene in Soorarai Pottru than there is in this entire film. Though it's refreshing to see a woman unabashedly telling a man that she is attracted to him. But in one scene she says: Let's have a go at each other. Who talks like this?

Rathindran R. Prasad directs Inmai which means 'devoid of'. This film is about the rasa of fear. It's set mostly in a gorgeous house in Puducherry and stars Parvathy and Siddharth. She plays Waheeda, who comes off as someone artsy and sophisticated but whose past hides bitter compromises. He plays a young man who comes to her for a signature but turns out to be someone else altogether. There are some interesting ideas here about fear and guilt but they aren't explored enough. What stayed with me were the vibrant flashes of the light turquoise colour through the film, including on Waheeda's dupatta.

What also stayed with me is a masterful continuous shot in Karthik Subbaraj's short Peace. And the pain and loss on Revathi's face in Edhiri directed by Bejoy Nambiar. She is such a stunning actor. Edhiri is the first short in the anthology based on the rasa of compassion. The film features a dysfunctional married couple and murder. There are some lyrical passages in the film but the writing – the story is by Mani Ratnam – doesn't give us enough. We don't know why the husband and wife are estranged which makes it difficult to invest emotionally.

Many of the films start with quotes, ranging from Diane Ackerman to C. S. Lewis to Rumi, which seem tacked on to add heft to stories that aren't written sharply enough to soar.

Navarasa is bolstered by good intentions, some superb performances and craft but overall, the anthology doesn't exceed the sum of its parts.

You can watch the films on Netflix India.

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