After the climax and the epilogue, the song 'Chellamma' plays. Not as the background for end credits, but like any other song in the middle of any other film. This is the first time in the 2.5 hours runtime of Doctor, we see Sivakarthikeyan as we'd expect to see him — jolly, energetic, dynamic and somewhat naughty. This is perhaps why the entire audience at the theatre stayed in their seats and enjoyed the song. Or they were perhaps just relishing the delight that Doctor was, like I did.
Doctor is a few days in the life of an unemotional military doctor, Varun (Sivakarthikeyan). His fiance Padmini (Priyanka Arul Mohan) calls off the wedding because he doesn't say 'there there' when she's in pain. Padmini's father (Ilavarasu) thinks it's good for Varun because women like her only deserve "arrogant men who give them two tight slaps on their face and control them." "Naanum thimir pidichavan thaan, Sir," (I am arrogant too) Varun insists, with absolutely no conviction in his eyes. For a moment, I bit my nails in fear that the film will have a parallel taming-the-shrew track. Doctor, thankfully, is above that.
In a few moments, Padmini's niece, Chinnu (Zaara Vineet), is kidnapped and the family is thrown into turmoil. Varun, by virtue of being there — not being invited to save them, mind you — gets involved. The rest of the film takes a Kolamavu Kokila-like journey towards what looks like an impossible mission. Like Kolamavu Kokila, Nelson's previous film, Doctor too has some terrific moments. It also has some terrible misfires.
The film's biggest success is how writer-director Nelson brings together a motley group of quirky fools, led by a somewhat intelligent but also clueless doctor, to navigate a dangerous and high-stakes mission. Nelson is comfortably in his zone — the characters are palatably eccentric; the jokes are set up and delivered fantastically; the plot points are just the right amount of clever; the narrative tension is palpable without being distracting.
Nelson's view of families is an absolute delight. In a film about a family that goes to insane lengths to protect their child, he also sneaks in a few scenes about how dysfunctional they are. These scenes, even though they're meant to be dark, are simply real — even rich. For instance, the initial scenes where Padmini lays bare her father's misogyny is an excellent foreshadowing of what he later tells Varun. Later in that scene, Varun's mother tells Padmini that she doesn't like her, to which Padmini responds with "same to you." After this, Varun's mother storms off, leaving him behind to resolve his life. Her reappearance in the second half is a hoot!
There is a bit of casual misogyny in the film that could have been avoided, though — emasculating a man for having lost a bet, an "aunty-hero" joke, a mandatory "good-looking women are stupid" gag etc. It's not preachy, nor is it the stand of the film. In fact, Doctor does really well not to tame/harass Padmini into submission. The sexism is a reflection of the characters themselves, all of whom are flawed. Yet, it's something that Nelson could have avoided and lost nothing — but he retained them just for easy claps. It's disappointing that he did.
Beyond that, unlike Kolamavu Kokila, where the morbid humour was delicious, Doctor is about a schoolgirl who has been kidnapped. Someone mentions human trafficking right at the beginning, making my stomach churn a little. The family falls apart with the father (Arun Alexander) rushing to kill himself. Within seconds of this, the film moves to ha-ha level jokes and absurdity. This transition is grating. A family's ability to trust silly strangers and an unemotional doctor with the life of their daughter is unconvincing. The emotional moments, therefore, lack the strength of the writing that Nelson displays in the quirky scenes.
What it lacks in writing, however, Doctor makes up for in excellent casting. Varun is unlike any Sivakarthikeyan character we've seen ever before. He's restrained in that he has no counters or even comical lines. He doesn't smirk self-assuredly when he insults Padmini for being foolish. He looks at her earnestly in love, not naughtily waiting to taunt her. It's almost unnatural to see Sivakarthikeyan that way, but you warm up as the film progresses. He looks and plays the part. I don't want to jump the gun and proclaim him to have turned a new leaf as an actor or anything. But I will say, he is wholesome as Varun.
Archana as the mother who's lost her child is fantastic. Watch out for the moment she reunites with her daughter — the only emotional scene in the film that truly works, and almost entirely because of how Archana upholds it. Deepa, as the resigned cynic who eats her emotions, is hilarious. Not only because of the sharp dialogues that are written for her but also because of how she brings her entire physical self to her jokes. I keep my fingers crossed that this comedian gets to have a long and successful comedy career.
Redin Kingsley plays the same role he's always played — the foolish loudmouth. If nothing else, he entertains with just experience. Yogi Babu as the amateur kidnapper, gets a slightly better version of his self-deprecating and insulting humour. Even actors playing small characters play their part well. They make Doctor look at home and comfortable throughout the first half.
In fact, it's some of the big names like Milind Soman, Raghu Ram, Rajiv Lakshman and the antagonist Vinay Rai himself that are a bit of a letdown. If dubbing is one part of the problem, the other is perhaps Nelson's control over the milieu itself. We get so much of Chennai in the first half — Koyambedu bus stand, share auto, Chennai Metro, dingy police stations, cruel cops, tea shops, crowded streets, hiding in plain sight, Nelson brings the city into his film. Goa, on the other hand, is reduced to a five-star hotel and a dungeon by the beach. In and of itself, this wouldn't be a grouse, if Nelson hadn't set the bar for himself so high.
Some of his touches are delicious. Take, for instance, the interval block. I don't want to ruin it for you, but keep an eye out for the lights. For each set-up, the payoffs are worth every penny. Take the lunch table where Varun realises he's been caught. Or the point where the climax looks somewhat lukewarm and unsatisfactory until Varun reemerges from the vast Goan seas. There are hilarious action sequences when you don't even expect one — you'll know when you see Redin Kingsley in the climax.
Upping a bar is also the film's music director Anirudh, soundly delineating the mass moments for us. Nelson sometimes plays down the mass, but Anirudh wouldn't have it. He is enjoying the film and he wants you to feel it.
Two days from now, as the memes emerge, we will begin asking how any of what Doctor shows is plausible. The film itself offers little by way of explanation. For instance, Varun goes to Goa and occupies an ice cream shop as the headquarters of his operation. There's no explanation of how he manages that. Nelson just expects you to accept he'll know someone who knows someone who can make that happen. This way, a good part of Doctor will be unbelievable — as in, you won't believe it's plausible. As you reminisce, you're likely to think up what might seem like logical loopholes. But, while you're watching the film, you wouldn't care.
Because Nelson isn't going for believability. He's going for immersion. By that standard, Doctor is tremendous fun.