Director: Arun Prabhu Purushothaman
Cinematographer: Shelly Calist
Music: Pradeep Kumar
Cast: Pradeep, TJ Bhanu, Aahrav S. Gokulnath, Diva
If director Arun Prabhu Purushothaman's last film, Aruvi, was concerned about social problems, Vaazhl explores the personal. Abruptly and in the middle of action, we meet Prakash (Pradeep) as he's drowning in a blue mass of water. He's fighting for life because his leg is stuck under a rock underwater. When we rewind to the beginning of his story, we see him in a blue-looking Chennai, stuck in a dreary IT job, dready relationship and a dreary family. Can he breathe freely again? But when you think you're going to get a message, Vaazhl gives you an idiosyncratic and well-crafted experience instead.
A lot of the goodness in Vaazhl cannot be reduced to simpler terms. For example, Prakash's family gathers around to read aloud a confiscated letter written by his sister to her secret boyfriend. It's cringey with lines like 'naa fullah unakkudhaan, nee fullah enakkudhaan (I'm all yours, you're all mine)'. The next day, when Prakash bumps into the boyfriend, 'nee fullah enakkudhaan' is heard trailing off just as he appears. It's the kind of intricate joke that can't be repeated; you have to experience it to get it. In another scene, we hear the song 'nandri solla unakku vaarthai illai enakku' when Prakash takes a leak after holding it for a really, really long time. There's also a ridiculously funny bit involving an accidental S. Ve. Shekher impersonation. The film is full of zany, original touches.
But it's not just the jokes. There's a scene in a beach where a character is trying to drown herself. She screams before she jumps into the water but we don't hear it. Yet, we hear the whispered gossip of fishermen standing about. Without any exposition, we feel her loneliness, and only because we weren't able to hear the scream. Vaazhl is set up as an immersive experience first and as a narrative next. And the experience is carefully calibrated.
For example, the drama around Prakash's girlfriend and his family is painfully maudlin; it feels so obviously fake. So, when Prakash meets Yatramma (TJ Bhanu), a cousin he's attracted to, or when Yatramma has a serious quarrel with her husband, Arun, the emotions feel raw. Arun Prabhu makes the emotional background of the film feel just slightly fake so that the dramatic parts of the film don't need to be overemphasized to feel real. For example, Yatramma murders Arun in a fit of rage. And we accept it, even though we don't know much about their relationship. It's because of how little the details add up.
We don't even learn Yatramma's real name. We only know her as 'Yatra's mother'. And Yatra (Aahrav S. Gokulnath) is her little son, an intelligent and hyperactive kid, who has trouble fitting in. It's so bad that even his father is jealous of him. Yatra calls his father 'Arun appa' while he calls his mother 'Yatra amma'. Through this little detail, we see the contours of an instinctive and unstated animosity between father and son over Yatramma. In fact, Yatramma strikes him down only after Arun tells her that she belongs to him and so should sleep with him at his whim, even it means Yatra is upset.
Once Prakash and Yatra meet, the film's trajectory becomes clear. You see the resolution even though you don't see the path to it. Yatra is a stand-in for Prakash's mind: hyperactive, uncontrollable and misfit. Prakash's journey through his own mind is externalized in the journey he takes with Yatra (whose name means journey, incidentally) and Yatramma. As Prakash takes responsibility for and becomes a friend to Yatra, he also becomes a friend to himself. The monkey is a common metaphor for the mind and a link between Yatra and monkeys is consciously established in a few instances. For example, Yatramma compares Yatra to an undisciplined monkey and there's another scene where Yatra wears a monkey mask.
Yatra as the monkey-like mind of the man is the film's central symbol. Arun Prabhu projects Prakash's journey into his own mind as a mad journey across the world with Yatra where the stakes keep escalating. But how the film reaches the end of the journey is both the most audacious and boring aspect at the same time.
It's audacious because instead of giving the viewer a message to chill out and take care of her own mind, the film tries to put her through the paces of discovering what it actually means to relax. At the halfway point, the film drops sail and the momentum of the first half is almost totally depleted. Events in the second half are relatively sparse that it feels almost like heaven — acceptable but boring. This feels shocking — even annoying — in a film that was intelligent enough to stay ahead of us in the first half.
But gradually, as the film progresses, you see that this 'boredom' that the mind experiences as it chills out might not be bad. You might even argue it's the 'solution' suggested by the film for our overstimulated brains. You experience the space that the film creates through its visuals and background score. As they gradually open up, you settle into a mood instead of wanting to hook on to specific events. If you were successfully initiated through this rite of boredom, the last thirty-minute climactic stretch can actually be a low-key enlightenment experience: like, say, watching a grasshopper wash its face with just air using its feet for minutes together — pointless and totally satisfying.
But not all the boredom we experience in the second half is justified. There's a stunt sequence outside a police station that's tedious. Even with Pradeep Kumar's score, the chase doesn't have physical energy or inventiveness. There's also a sequence at a hippie carnival where the historical connection between Murugan and Dionysius is hinted. We hear a song with lyrics written by Arunagirinathar describing how Murugan advised him to just "be still (summa iru)", perhaps, just as the God in the Bible said 'be still, and know that I am God'. But the atmosphere of the carnival looks intriguingly like a Bacchanalian orgy which is specifically about not being very still. And there's Prakash's dream where Yatra appears as Murugan (there's also 'Neeya Naana' Gopinath in it). But all this feels like detailing without also feeling relevant (it's possible that another viewing might help). At least some of the boredom in the second half before the final climactic stretch, feels real.
But if you've moved past this and learned not to worry about the momentum, there's a fantastic visual reward near the end in the form of an image of a dense forest with waterfalls (cinematography by Shelly Calist) shown in perfect synchrony with lyrics that say 'mei maranthen, mei unarnthen". The words pun brilliantly on the two senses of mei: body and truth. Though you want to forget the one and realize the other to be happy, they both are denoted by the same word. Vaazhl is also something like that. What the film means to you will depend on whether you take up the challenge it sets up for you in the second half.