Director: Dhilip Kumar
Cast: Madhavan, Shraddha Srinath, Sshivada, Mouli, Abirami, Alexander Babu
Maara is based on Charlie (2015), which Martin Prakkat directed and co-wrote with Unni R. The director, Dhilip Kumar (I wrote a short film for him once), said in a Film Companion interview that he's made an adaptation, not a remake. I don't recall Charlie all that well, but if memory serves me right, the broad beats in Maara are the same and yet, the specifics are different. The story is the kind of magical fable that makes you think what Anurag Basu would have made of it. And the template is essentially that of a treasure hunt, except that the pot of gold at the end is replaced by an insanely charming man (Dulquer Salmaan in the original, R Madhavan here), from whom the film takes its name.
This casting, I think, is crucial. Charlie/Maara is off-screen for large chunks of time, and yet, you need the sense of him from start to finish. You need an actor who's funny and charming, someone whose smile and eye-twinkle make Paru's search worthwhile. Like Dulquer, Madhavan checks all these boxes, and then some — because what he brings to this movie is not just his performance here but his screen history playing smiling, twinkle-eyed charmers in his youth. (Maara is middle-aged, and Madhavan sports a beard seasoned with as much salt as pepper.) Shraddha Srinath plays Paru. She's the determined treasure hunter, and like in Charlie (where Parvathy Thiruvothu played the part), the casting made me smile. These two actors are often called to embody stern, no-nonsense women — and how nice to see them as die-hard romantics, who prefer fairy-tale magic to real-life logic!
Sorry, did I just say "romantic"? Make that Romantic, with a capital R. The film gets going when Paru, as a little girl, hears a story. Actually, make that a Fable, with a capital F. It's about a man whose soul resided in a fish — or maybe it's really about a man whose soul belonged to a woman named Meenakshi, which translates to a "fish-eyed" woman. The beauty of Charlie/Maara is how much of a love story it is, and yet how it's not really the love story of the "hero" and the "heroine". Ghibran's ear-candy songs (and Thamarai's lyrics) give us phrases like "Yaar azhaippadhu / yaar kural idhu", and "Oru alai unadhu / oru alai enadhu / idaiyinil kadalum karaindhiduma" that are shot on the leads — but the film's beating heart lies in Paru's profession. She does restoration work on old buildings, but her real purpose on this earth is revealed when she restores something precious to an old man.
Did you just wince at the phrase "purpose on this earth"? Did you find it too… fanciful? But that is what it is. Maara is the kind of movie that says the universe gives you signs, and all you have to do is trust your heart and follow those signs. Its firm faith in romantic whimsy and the worthiness of good deeds makes you imagine what we'd get if Amélie and Samuthirakani had a bonny little baby. Maara is terribly long (maybe it'd help if you haven't seen Charlie) and the non-stop score (it keeps saying "look how whimsical all this is!!!!") begins to grate after a while — but given the big imaginative leaps we are asked to make, the tone is remarkably even. This is a very pleasant film. There are no "fake" highs, not even when Maara does the things a commercial-film hero usually does. The punch comes from his action, and not just from his dialogue.
Apart from Madhavan and Shraddha, the supporting cast is tops. Alexander Babu is lovely as a thief who delivers a hilarious twist on the stalker-lover trope so beloved to Tamil cinema. Abirami hits some nice notes as a sex worker. Moulee doles out generous doses of grandfatherly warmth. The film's standout is Sshivada, who does with mere glances what others would need a dozen lines to convey. A sharp turn of her face during an emotional moment made me slap my head and wonder why we don't see more of her (or Abirami, for that matter). The film's real stars, however, are the cinematographers, Dinesh Krishnan and Karthik Muthukumar. The colours are deep and immersive, real when they need to be and gloriously overwrought when the fable demands it. A terrific example of the latter is the shot inside Maara's home, where everything — a scented candle, an armchair, even the light that falls on a face — is awash in sea colours (turquoise, aquamarine, et cetera). Why? Because it all began with a fairy tale about a fish, remember? Maara made me wish for a big screen again. It would have been a spa for the senses.