Director: Karthik Naren
Cast: Dhanush, Malavika Mohanan
Early on in Maaran, Karthick Naren's latest, the eponymous hero (Dhanush) goes to an online news publication for a job interview. There, a senior journalist challenges him to a "which news item will be more popular on Twitter?" contest. The senior journalist chooses lewd gossip about an actress. Maaran chooses a "positive" story about a political party started by college students. No points for guessing who wins this challenge, of course.
But what's telling about the film is that immediately after getting a job, Maaran breaks into a victory song-and-dance. In the world of Karthick Naren's Maaran, just getting a job is enough for slo-mo shots and victory walks, even if one has been fired from a dozen jobs in the last few years. "Eiii, idhu pollaadha ulagam" (this is a cruel world), Maaran croons. He offers free advice about taking other people's advice. He mock-hits six coins while singing "aaru ball sixer adi da" (hit a sixer of all six balls). During the course of this song, Maaran also gains journalistic glory. He gets on the cover of a fake Time Magazine, wins journalism awards, and gets proud smiles from his editor. If this was a 90s Rajinikanth film, we would have been awed by the cleverness (there is also a fight scene where Dhanush first takes a beating before he hits back, make what of it you will). In 2022, this not only feels uninspired, but also utterly unentertaining.
Anyway, if you haven't already guessed, Maaran is the story of, well, Maaran, a fearless journalist who takes on the powers that be, conducting sting operations. Soon enough, his beloved sister is kidnapped, he falls into alcoholism, villains come and go, he sets an elaborate trap to teach his friend an unnecessary lesson, and then in the end, a few of the conflicts are resolved.
The best thing about Maaran is that it's only two hours and ten minutes long. So, before you realise that you're not sure what's going on, the film is thankfully over. Yet, Maaran is the kind of film that lingers in your mind, sprouting questions long after you're done watching. For instance, Maaran's mother and father die on the same day. Why then don't Maaran and his sister have their mother's garlanded photo in their pooja room while they have their father's?
Does Bose Venkat's character exist with the sole purpose of being a red herring — was the character called "man with a hearing aid" in the first draft? Why does Tara (Malavika Mohanan) change into chudidars and start wearing bindis after Maaran's sister's death? Why does 24×7 News, a television channel following up on Maaran's expose, give him, a journalist from a competitor media house, disproportionate build up? How, in Karthick Naren's mind, does the media business work?
These questions are unlikely to come by when you're watching the film, though. Because like Karthick Naren's earlier work, Mafia, Maaran is also too full of itself. People can't stop talking about how Maaran is just like his father. Maaran himself can't stop talking about himself — there is also a self-referential joke about it — and how he wants to write the "truth." Yet, in Maaran, truth is just what the hero thinks it is. No checks and balances necessary. At one point, long after the expose has been published, the editor asks him, "do you have evidence?" and he says, "if you're willing to make it public, I'll give you the evidence." For Karthick Naren, this is enough, pursuit of truth is this simple. Maaran doesn't concern itself with depth or ambiguity. We just have to accept that the hero knows what's right.
Even if you're willing to set aside the logical emptiness of Maaran, the film barely achieves anything else. The emotional core is all over the place. The sister sentiment is melodramatic. We see little by way of chemistry between the siblings, except some convoluted hiding-and-gift-giving.
The staging of interactions is unimaginative. The love track between Maaran and Tara is as sweet as bagasse — what with the gag about the woman getting drunk on a plane and confessing her love while the man pretends not to be interested. At the end of this scene, Maaran asks Tara to go sit somewhere else. She walks up to a stranger, waves her hand at him and he vacates the seat without a question. In Karthick Naren's world, everyone behaves the way he expects them to, just like that!
The characterisation is awkward. Music director GV Prakash Kumar seems to have taken more interest in building Samuthirakani's character as an evil ex-minister than Karthick Naren ever did. After a botched attempt at killing Maaran, the ex-minister slaps his goons for failing. "You don't do it anymore, you'll mess it up," he complains. And then trusts the same incompetent goons to bring someone else to do the job. No, please tell me, what kind of manager looks at a subordinate who failed miserably at a task, reprimands them and delegates the responsibility of getting it done by a more competent person back to them?
The film's most painful part is the bizarre third act. It makes a convoluted argument connecting a journalist doing his job to the death of a young woman whose father is a criminal. It throws director Ameer at us as a villain, who we did not have the pleasure of knowing until the very end. It twists itself into an unravelable knot and then leaves itself too many loose ends.
So, at the end of Maaran, despite Dhanush's best efforts, some energetic dancing and literally punching above his weight in fight scenes, we're left with "Eh?" We would be kinder to the cluelessness of the film, if only it didn't scream "watch me, I'm so clever" at every chance it got.