Directors: Bejoy Nambiar (Edhiri), Priyadarshan (Summer of '92), Karthik Naren (Project Agni), Vasanth (Payasam), Karthik Subbaraj (Peace), Arvind Swami (Roudhram), Rathindran R. Prasad (Inmai), Sarjun KM (Thunintha Pin), Gautham Vasudev Menon (Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru)
Cast: Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Parvathy, Remya Nambeesan, Prayaga Martin, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Yogi Babu, Arvind Swamy, Bobby Simha, Aditi Balan, Rohini, Delhi Ganesh, Revathi, Prakash Raj, Prasanna, Nedumudi Venu, Atharvaa, Anjali
What kept me going through a day-long binge of Navarasa was to see how some of our biggest filmmakers have chosen to interpret the emotions they were given. Some of them simply chose to use their emotion as a broad springboard to make a shorter version of the film they would make anyway. So when a humour specialist like Priyadarshan uses hasya to make a flat comedy starring Yogi Babu, there's no fresh interpretation of the emotion beyond the thought that it is a film genre and that the audience must laugh while watching it. Summer Of '92 (based on actor Innocent's anecdotes) tries really hard to achieve this through a combination of slapstick and scatalogical humour with intermittent jokes at the expense of a character's appearance. But the only emotion that applies to the viewer here is a sense of wonder (adbutha) at the datedness of these comedic tropes and how there's not a joke that works even partly.
Gautham Menon's Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru too has a lot of similar problems. For one, it feels at least twice in length to the others and this feeling only doubles when it's the series-ender. Slotting shringara (romance) for Gautham Menon itself seems an obvious decision and all that obviousness works overtime when we're pushed deep into a half-hour flirting session. The conversation is surface-level and mundane but the dialogues feel like they are from another era.
For a whole generation, a Gautham Menon film used to be a textbook on how to talk to a lover. Just the 20-minute portion between Suriya and Sameera Reddy in Varanam Aayiram influenced everything from the way youngsters dressed, behaved and the guitar lessons they would take up to then quit promptly. But by 2021, the idea of a relationship or even flirting has changed a lot. What seemed like a big deal then (like how a man makes the woman feel safe with him or that quality of a man who looks only at her eyes while speaking to her) don't necessarily feel like noteworthy qualities one needs to bring up, let alone discuss in a movie. The mix of English and Tamil dialogues don't match and we find it awkward when Suriya's character compares his crush to his mother…hook, line and sinker. And one's yet to meet couples who begin a potential make-out sesh with "let's have a go at each other".
The film looks hip (PC Sreeram), with an aesthetic that will remind you of La La Land and the latest Cadbury's commercial. But the hipness in both visuals and music never really translates to the conversation or the conceit of watching a new-age romance. It is an issue one might feel with Edhiri (Karuna) too, starring Vijay Sethupathi, Prakash Raj and Revathi. It is very well made and it has a fascinating concept at its heart that involves one's guilt manifesting as a person. But there's a distance with which we approach this film, distracted by the fanciful split screens and the pitch perfect art direction. The performances are solid too, especially that of Revathi's whose state of mind doubles the concept of Karuna as not just something you feel for others, but one you need to feel for yourself. Vijay Sethupathi's character is fascinating too even though it isn't explored enough. His character, having committed a crime, almost accepts the reality of it. But his conflict does not arise from a difficulty to face the truth. It has more to do with the pain of brutal waiting, a frame of mind where a person almost craves punishment.
In Arvind Swami's Roudhram we get another film that goes deeper into the emotion than its use simply as a genre. Easily the best-written film of the lot, Roudhram is a good example of how one can use structure to deceive the audience without it feeling like a gimmick. The twist is punchy and it explores multiple interpretations of rage (Roudhram), each one more self-destructive than the other. It is also among the one or two films within Navarasa where you feel the presence of a workable idea that didn't require retrofitting to suit the one emotion per movie format. With its tight filmmaking and performances, one can't wait to see what Arvind Swamy does next.
The other film that would have worked just as well outside of the format was Karthik Subbaraj's Peace, with a question mark in the title that signifies the ironic ending. In terms of making, it is the antithesis of Karthik's style in Jagame Thanthiram. Without his flashy signatures, the film feels grounded and real and it is able to touch the raw nerves one approaches the subject of Eelam Tamils with. The writing is able to accommodate the single-shot and both editing and sound design excels in switching between ominous placidity and intense chaos within seconds. Without the big budgets he is now used to, you see traces of the old inventive Karthik Subbaraj who could make hard-hitting films that would feel so effortless in its making.
Both Thunintha Pin (valour) and Project Agni (wonder) had elements that worked to an extent but these are highly talkative films that leaves you with a feeling of indifference. In Thunintha Pin you get another conversation between two people at the either ends of a political spectrum but here again, the topics seldom reveal thoughts we hadn't already heard nor are there dramatic elements we don't see coming. In Project Agni, though, it is all about one's ability to suspend disbelief. In what feels like a thirty-minute exposition session, we hear of far-fetched concepts we are forced to take seriously only because the film deals with death and betrayal. Arvind Swami appears utterly convinced and it is his conviction that makes us want to pay attention even though it all feels like stoner-talk. The house has a set-like quality to it and Prassana's character is perhaps the snazziest ISRO scientist, but the film redeems itself of its excesses with a fun twist that reminds us and it's just a Nolan fan making a 'mindbender' with as much money and precision as Joker's makeup.
Rathindran Prasad's Inmai (fear) and Vasanth's Payasam (bhibatsa or disgust) were clearly the two films to use their respective emotions most cleverly. In the former, the film stays far away from the horror genre but it is haunting in the way it shows how fear can destroy a person. It takes the structure of a basic revenge thriller but there's no violence that one inflicts one another. It is merely the use of carefully chosen words and memories that result in the film's ending and the conversation reminds one of The Seventh Seal, with a character having to look back at their life at the face of death. Fear is approached like a type of inescapable cancer that will eventually catch up no matter how many good deeds one tries to hide behind.
The best-made film of the series has to be Vasanth's Payasam. The written material fits the emotion of 'disgust' perfectly and we also get the best use of an actor expressing the emotion to further the film's theme. With some excellent filmmaking and the series' best performance in Delhi Ganesh, Payasam is among the two or three films that makes Navarasa worth watching, even though most of them are best left to be forgotten.