Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Priyanka Arulmohan, SJ Suryah, Samuthirakani, Soori
Director: Cibi Chakravarthi
Writer-director Cibi Chakravarthi manages something most filmmakers can't: Converting a recycle bin of tired tropes into an entertaining potpourri. He brings together everything that the young, male, Sivakarthikeyan audience adores, such as college nostalgia, Rajinikanth references, male friendships, revenge on the engineering academia, aggrandization of the ordinary, Appa sentiment and parental sacrifice, take-it-easy policy, a cute girlfriend whose sole purpose is to unquestioningly support her wayward lover and so on.
Cibi understands the pulse of his audience so intricately well and packs every minute of his debut film Don with what they want to see. In fact, I'd stick my neck so far out as to say that he — abundantly supported by Sivakarthikeyan — makes the film's utter lack of originality almost admirable.
Don is the story of Chakravarthy (Sivakarthikeyan), fondly known as Don, who steps into college determined to find his calling despite the heavyhandedness of his father (Samuthirakani) and college professor (SJ Suryah). Through this almost three-hour-long film, we see him waste his time, grab onto straws of purpose, lie and cheat ceaselessly and stumble upon what appears to be his innate talent casually, and succeed miraculously.
Through none of these things do we see a semblance of authorial or directorial vision. The film begins with a voiceover as lazy as "when we think of college, we remember friendships, love etc. etc." It ends with a moral science lesson about appreciating parents while they're alive. There is a current-day and flashback structure so desperate to hold the audience's attention that he summons an elephant to build narrative tension.
The two main villains, the father and the professor, are caricatures. They are not just unidimensional but also laughable. SJ Suryah tries his best to bring the menacing nature of his previous villain roles. With little written for him, he is visibly struggling. Angayarkanni (Priyanka Arulmohan), Chakravarthy's love interest, is little but a motivational speaker. "Ponnungalukku successful-a irukkara aambalaingala vida, oruthana success aakkardhu thaan romba pidikkum," (more than a successful man, women like to make successes out of ordinary men) or something to that effect she says at one point. Does she not have a purpose, or even a pursuit, of her own?
Much of the film is stacked with "life in an engineering college" scenes. Take, for instance, the college cultural fest. There is an entire on-stage dance performance sequence that references popular music of the time, complete with men dressed as women and everything. If Sivakarthikeyan were any less of a charming dancer, the audience would be walking out.
The film is so enthralled by Chakravarthy finding his calling that there is a meta Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya-esque track featuring, wait for it, Gautham Menon. Pitched as a college romance, though, Don doesn't want to look past it. So, Chakravarthy's journey to the top of Tamil cinema echelons is hastened away in a montage of newspaper/magazine clippings. I dread the next crop of engineering students who want to make films and think it's that easy.
The film that first presents Angayarkanni as a brave woman — "rowdy," she's called in another scene — makes her a hapless damsel in distress to merely cue a fight sequence. The writing of these parts is embarrassing, like the scene of a man applying white powder in his hands before attempting to grab a woman's breast so his handprint on her causes continued humiliation. In Cibi Chakravarthi's engineering college universe, the pervasive (threat of) sexual violence on campus isn't worth even as much exploration as the alleged incompetency of teachers. Perhaps, the only two named female characters are better off just finding street-fighting boyfriends. Oh, did I mention that the perpetrators of that sexual violence are casually forgiven by other men and accepted in the fold a few days later?
In the middle of such omnipresent thoughtlessness, there is also a sprinkling of endearing moments. Like the scene where Chakravarthy tells Angayarkanni that he felt while finding his calling the same way he felt when he met her for the first time. A hopelessly romantic thing to say, but it works. Or the scene where Chakravarthy's father is desperately trying to fix a sombu that he dented throwing at his son earlier, while lamenting his mistakes. Or when Angayarkanni naturally admits that she's in love with Chakravarthy to his father.
The real miracle of Don, however, is its hero, Sivakarthikeyan. He sells the hell out of the film with bucketloads of earnestness. He brings vulnerability, and therefore likeability, to a character that could easily have had shades of arrogance. He is so amused by his own antics that we don't see how silly and easy they turn out to be. He dances like an absolute charm radiating joyful energy. He makes the humour work. He performs mimicry in a delightfully natural course of the film. He acts more than his money's worth. In the hands of any other actor in Tamil cinema today, Don would have been a painfully mediocre film. In Sivakarthikeyan's hands, it's a forgivably mediocre one.
As for Cibi, he is simply another addition to Tamil cinema's "patently unoriginal but moderately entertaining" hall of fame. I would be interested in seeing what he can do without Sivakarthikeyan, if we ever get to that.