Director: PS Mithran
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Arjun Sarja, Kalyani Priyadarshan and Abhay Deol
In PS Mithran's Hero, Sivakarthikeyan plays a #90sKid, and the screenplay is suffused with the spirit of an iconic #90sFilm: Gentleman. Shankar's career-cementing blockbuster was about the victim of a corrupt education system, and he strikes back as a vigilante. Slap a mask on a vigilante (i.e., someone who delivers his own extra-judicial brand of justice), and we get a… superhero. That's what Sakthi, the hero of Hero, dreams of becoming. He grows up, instead, to become a forger of certificates, and—like the protagonist of Gentleman—he gets a big, fat sentimental flashback. But this time, Meera (Kalyani Priyadarshan) hears him out patiently and dismisses it as a sob story. Every wrongdoer has a "the System made me do this" justification, she scoffs. That's the first sign that Hero isn't going to be just another superhero saga.
Mithran and his team of writers (MR Pon Parthiban, Savari Muthu, Antony Bhagyaraj) seem to have asked themselves the most basic and most necessary of questions: Why do we need a "superhero" in Tamil cinema, when even our most regular of heroes can beat up twenty people, and without being bitten by a radioactive spider? The most pleasant surprise in Hero is how unheroic Sakthi is. (The everyman-ish Sivakarthikeyan is perfectly cast.) Take his profession, for one. He may have his reasons, but he's still a borderline crook. He may have a woman around (Meera)—but she's not the usual "heroine", and despite some initial attraction (from his side), theirs is not a "love angle". He may end up fighting off bad guys—but the action moves are indebted to gadgets developed by very intelligent children.
Yes, children! They're this film's radioactive spiders—they create the "hero" with their out-of-the-box thinking. That's the Big Idea— and intentionally or not, it fits right in with Sivakarthikeyan's kid-friendly brand. As audiences, they made him a hero. Now, on screen, they make him a superhero. And who does he fight for? These very children! They are misfits in the educational factory system that's merely an assembly line spitting out "educated labourers", which is exactly what the villain wants. His name is Mahadev, and he's played by Abhay Deol, the latest in a long line of actors flown in from Mumbai because they look like rich dudes who can spout off a lot of English. But what little Abhay has to do he does with classy understatement.
The film, too, is surprisingly understated. It's not the traditional superhero-model action adventure I expected. It steers clear of massy "hero" moments, and there's a lot of clear, clean thinking in the writing. Why does Sakthi become a forger? Because his backstory involves a forged certificate. Why do the kids help Sakthi become a hero? So he can help other "misfits" like them escape the rote school system. There's a great stretch of Sakthi getting beaten up, and every blow to his body is intercut with a parent discovering his or her child's non-conformist dreams—like painting, or writing poetry. Why! Sakthi's own evolution as a superhero harks back to a non-conformist dream, of becoming a superhero. His father tells him, "Nambala naama dhaan kaapaathikkanum." That's what he's doing: safeguarding the interests of children like him.
But all of this doesn't come together with the punch you want. The film is too talky, and a lot of the time, we seem to be listening to variations of the same ideas. I wished the children had been used better (and used more). There's a great metaphor in Mahadev's choice of method. He prefers to lobotomise children who think differently, so they become "robots" like everyone else. But on screen, this conceit doesn't play out with the power it needs. The same could be said of huge moments, like when Sakthi's name is erased from his certificate. I wanted to be more moved than I was. I wanted gooseflesh! And the Shankar-isms—say, an uncaring hospital system that results in the death of a child—come off a little hokey today.
If Hero doesn't soar to great heights, it's still a solid film—and as an engineer who's now a writer, a lot of it resonated with me. It made me wish I'd had a "Master" during my childhood, someone who'd yanked me out years of Science and Maths misery. This moniker belongs to Sathyamurthy (played with characteristic authority, and in a nice touch, by the original Gentleman, Arjun), who runs a special school like the one in 3 Idiots, where amazing things are invented (like an engine that runs on salt water) by children who don't do well in traditional schools. He gets a flashback, too. He is, in a way, Hero's real hero, someone who's determined to foster a spark until it catches fire. I am, in principle, opposed to message movies, but at least the message, here, is consistently conveyed. It's Albert Einstein's quote: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." That's as true of a scientist as a superhero.