Director: Arun Prabhu Purushothaman
Cinematographer: Shelly Calist
Music: Pradeep Kumar
Cast: Pradeep, TJ Bhanu, Aahrav S. Gokulnath, Diva
With Vaazhl, Arun Prabhu Purushothaman has managed to do something that very few filmmakers have: his second film is actually better than his first. Whether you like it in its entirety or not, there's so much happening and also so much in terms of what's untold. While Aruvi is talky, Vaazhl is more visual even when there's high drama. There's so much control over the medium that it's stunning to watch at every point.
The film opens with an image from a scene that actually happens much later: a man is underwater with one of his feet stuck between rocks. This is a metaphor and it means that the man's trapped in real life too. He has to free himself to find a way to live, to vaazhl. The director seems to be saying that you have to free yourself from the traps of daily life to really live.
What are these traps? The man is Prakash (Pradeep Anthony) who has a high-pressure IT job. His girlfriend keeps guilt-tripping him and he's not happy at home with his family either. Suddenly, things change when he meets a woman we only know as Yatramma (a brilliant TJ Bhanu) because she's the mother of a boy named Yatra (Aahrav S. Gokulnath). This is a film filled with many philosophies. One of them is that people who you meet on the road of life have the potential to change it.
And Yatramma, who is a bit like a femme fatale from a Hollywood noir film, is toying with Prakash. She seems to be using him and yet she doesn't seem to be too; it's not really clear. Prakash hops on to an exhilarating rollercoaster ride with her and so does the audience. The screenplay is super innovative. Usually, when there are two central characters, the film switches from one to the other. But here, we follow Prakash for the longest time and when his track converges with that of Yatramma, it's beautiful. It's probably too soon to say but Raymond Derrick Crasta and Arun Prabhu Purushothaman are probably the best editor-director-writer combination working in Tamil cinema today. So much of the film is structured, both from cinematic and narrative points of views. We discover things with Prakash and this is emphasized by the editing.
Vaazhl is a road movie and it can be seen as three different parts. The first part has to do with Prakash and Yatramma. We're never sure about her motives and there's a sense of dread and suspense. This part of the film occurs all over Tamil Nadu. The second part features a Bolivian woman named Tanya (Diva Dhawan). Prakash continues to be the anti-protagonist; it's the women who make things happen to him. First, it's Yatramma and now it's Tanya. Because we are jumping from the very tense Yatramma part, the initial portion here seems a bit jarring. But gradually the movie begins to calm down and breathe. At first, it's a bit of a shock because we're in Prakash's mind and this change of pace is as much a shock to us as it is for Prakash.
The roadtrip now becomes international and we see more of the natural world now. When 2001: A Space Odyssey released, they said that the best way to watch the film was to smoke up a joint and lie back and enjoy the whole thing, because it's a big philosophical experience that's just going to wash over you; it's best not to be in your sense while you're watching it. I could make a similar case for Vaazhl, as well.
The part with Tanya didn't work too well for me. She's a hippie like in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, but it's also not as reductive as that. But the message is still a bit obvious, a little too on the nose, a bit greeting card-y, but the final section is brilliant. Prakash, as his name literally means, finds the light he's been looking at all his life without knowing it. He's not scared anymore and Pradeep Anthony is perfect as the man who finally becomes an active protagonist of his own life.
You could ask yourself if this is really the best way to find yourself, because not everyone can go on an international trip. For example, Tanya suggests we take thirty days off every day just for ourselves. But Vaazhl is not literal, it's philosophical. It's a metaphorical film that you have to take at a higher level.
Pradeep Kumar's score is so much in sync with the narrative. The music seems to be part of the film's DNA as if Arun knew exactly where he wanted sounds and silences. Unlike the usual big background scores, the music just flows with the film. Even when it stands out, it goes with the narrative. I also really like the conceit of a Bolivian woman being so much in touch with Tamil culture that she's able to belt out a song by Arunagirinathar.
Another major contributor to the film is cinematographer Shelley Calist. If you were to sum up his approach in a reductive way, it would be that the angles are just a little off but not bizarre. Just this little disturbance suggests that something is off.
The film has a few auteur touches. Take Yatra, the hyperactive kid. You know Prakash, at one point, even asks if the kid's autistic. But as he moves away from the city into nature, he behaves like any other kid. We saw this in Aruvi too because Aruvi was happy in her village and the moment she moved away from the peace of her village, she became a slightly different person.
Take Prakash's sister who has a love affair. It's treated both as a slapstick and drama, and I was reminded of the AIDS subplot in Aruvi which wasn't treated with pity or sympathy until the very end. It doesn't work for me but the rest of the film is magnificent. Arun Prabhu specializes in films that aren't completely rational. For example, you don't watch the spin-the-bottle round in Aruvi believing that it's rational or logical. It seems to require a leap of faith and imagination. Here too, Prakash has to make some calls from a place and I wasn't sure if he was hallucinating.
Another auteur touch is when two people meet after being separated by a jungle for a very long time. A logical might would ask how that was possible. But, earlier in the film an old man narrates a story about a homing pigeon. If you believed that, you should have no problem believing this either.
Arun Prabhu likes his film to say something. And once again, after Aruvi, he proves that he's a very sophisticated 'message' movie maker. In fact, his movies aren't about simple placard-holding. They are about philosophies. But I think he likes to hammer home his messages a little too hard and overemphasize what he wants to say. It's not a deal breaker because the rest of the film is so magnificent. When you come away from the film, despite it's very minor faults, it's with the satisfaction of having seen something with a superb sense of cinematic craft and storytelling courage — which is the most important thing.