Cast: Yogi Babu, Srimathi, GM Kumar, Hari Krishna
Velu, a tea seller whose world revolves around his young daughter, isn’t your typical super-dad that cinema has fed us until now. He breaks into a roaring applause when she speaks in English, but misses her dance recital at school for work. He lights her face up with small unplanned gifts, but forgets her birthday and laughs along with her at his waning memory. And when she goes through an unexpected trauma, he doesn’t burst a blood vessel, but lets his rage simmer inside, never once letting it emerge past his eyes. With Velu, Yogi Babu gives us a striking, lived-in interpretation of a blue-collar worker, who navigates fatherhood and caste prejudices in rural Tamil Nadu.
Director Shan begins the movie with fitting montages of various daily wage workers from across Tamil Nadu – and this gets a beautiful extension through some of the characters that he fills its universe with. You have a homeless paati who speaks politics and protests police brutality on the streets and a beef biryani vendor who will do anything for a friend in need. And then there is Jeeva (a superb Hari Krishna), a communist activist who fights for the marginalised. In the middle of all this is Velu, a tea seller who keeps his head down now just while serving tea, but also when the people around him outrage. So, when his half-brother’s family treats him like dirt, Velu probably realises that it has everything to do with his caste, but doesn’t let out as much as a sigh. Instead, he moves himself away from the volatile situation and goes about living his life in silence. For he prefers silence and peace to outrage and justice. But when distress strikes and shakes up his family, it also shakes up his beliefs, forcing him to face a reality he wanted to stay away from.
Bommai Nayagi (Srimathi), Velu's daughter, is named after their ancestral goddess. But in many ways, Velu is the bommai or doll that is puppetered by the people around him. When he is forced to do the “right thing”, he is swung by two sides – one is puritanical, which lectures him on the stigma that is often associated with female sexual abuse, and another is revolutionary, teaching him for the need to revolt. While Velu evidently knows the right thing to do, his hesitations are movingly captured, and often teach us about the privilege and restrictions that caste always brings with its ugly self.
Another character that is treated with nuance in the universe is Jeeva, a political intellect who is careful not to be a one-upper. When a rogue inspector asks him “Nee yaaru” multiple times, Jeeva understands the caste undertones in his question and lets out a knowing smile, leaving his work to speak. He does the same when Velu asks him why the accused always end up coming out on bail. “The law protects and sometimes doesn’t,” he says, succinctly explaining the justice system to a layman.
While Shan handles some of these sequences (especially an incident of sexual battery) with sensitivity, its writing stops just short of letting us fully connect with characters. So, even if Yogi Babu and Subatra Robert (Bommai’s mother) give compelling performances, it makes us wonder if some of its powerful dialogue deserved better screenplay and pacing. Yogi Babu, however, tries his best and often succeeds in lifting this drama with an almost meditative performance. The Last Of Us showrunner Craig Mazin recently revealed why he cast Nick Offerman, a comedic actor, for one of the most affecting roles in the series. “Funny people have soul,” he said. Yogi Babu, after his moving act in Love Today, proves yet again that he’s not just about the laughs.