Director: Radha Mohan
Cast: SJ Suryah, Priya Bhavani Shankar
Wonderfully weird is a phrase we often reserve for the truly bizarre yet evocative. If you’re a fan of horror, Tim Burton’s universe may come to mind, and then closer to home, there is the SJ Suryah’s brand of films — from simultaneously playing an 8-year-old in a 28-year-old’s body in New to his terrifying turn as a freakish psychopath in gothic horror Nenjam Marapathillai (2021), mastering the weird is his jam. Which is why Radhamohan’s Bommai, a Tamil psychological thriller revolving around a mannequin artiste falling in love with his own doll, seems deliciously tailor-made for the actor. SJ Suryah is wonderful and weird in Bommai, but his character, like the film, isn’t quite either.
SJ Suryah is Raju or Rajakumara, a seemingly gentle mannequin artiste, who is clearly overqualified for the job. He battles with visible hand tremors and the invisible baggage of a past trauma, which has him routinely pop pills. His family or friends don’t really have a presence in his life. Except there is one person — Nandhini, his childhood best friend, who was painfully taken away from his life as a teen due to a mishap. But something strange unfolds when he suddenly begins seeing Nandhini in one of his mannequins. This sequence, in particular, is beautifully envisioned. A young Nandhini has a flesh-coloured birthmark on her right chin, something that Raju finds fascinating. And a spot of chipped paint on a random mannequin’s right cheek stands in for Nandhini’s mole in his mind. The mannequin transforms into an older Nandhini (Priya Bhavani Shankar), and the two pick up where they left off. The camera zooms in on them, as they sit still mid-laughter, its lens superbly mimicking an eerie image of two smiling mannequins. A love story begins.
Bommai sits on remarkable potential and an even richer master plot. But what it does with it is frustratingly underwhelming for a story that ideally needed to be extremely over-the-top. For one, Radhamohan gives Raju and Nandhini a painfully cliched past. “What Raju has for Nandhini is beyond love or friendship…it is devotion,” his psychiatrist tells Raju’s friend, in a very poorly-placed segue to a flashback. Convenient writing choices stop the film from becoming bigger than just its memorable one-liner. The sequences between SJ Suryah and Priya Bhavani Shankar — contrary to obvious assumptions — don’t border on risque or repulsive. It is instead shockingly bland. The two often revel in nostalgia and a future that was tragically cut short. But instead of taking us to uncomfortable and fantastical spaces, Bommai turns their romance into a stereotypical heteronormative relationship.
“I don’t want you to just make upmas on Sundays” and “Please don’t throw wet towels” on the bed are what stand in for bizarre sweet-nothings. But to be fair, Bommai goes down this trajectory also because Radhamohan wants to explore Raju’s dizzying state of mind. SJ Suryah is phenomenal as the troubled artiste, turning from a gentle, worrying lover to a monstrous killer in seconds. The effect of his desperation and rage to cling on to the past is visible in scenes where there is a reaction scene from a secondary character, who is stunned to silence at his demeanor. A sudden murder-mystery angle gives the film the much-needed pace, but also distracts. Radhamohan, who is known for his perceptive touch in sensitive human dramas, makes his presence visible through certain tacit shots. A shot of two orange popsicles hitting the ground is superbly cut with the shot of blood splatter.
It is also tangible through some smart wordplay. “There is a difference between a man who fears the police for not wearing the helmet and a man who steals a bike,” a cop says. Or when an exhausted Raju tries to explain his angst with, “Avala marandhitu, vera edha nyabagam vechikardhu (If I forget her, what else is worth remembering?) But for every such dialogue, we also get a line that ysees Raju compare Nandhini to his dead mother. Will women ever break free from having the ridiculous need to constantly mother her partner on screen?
It also doesn’t help that Nandhini, for the most part, is treated as a doll even metaphorically. “I lost her as a young guy, but I will not lose her again,” Raju tells us, as if she is a doll that he misplaced as a kid. An exploration of SJ Suryah’s deep metaphysical romance is perhaps reserved for yet another universe.