Director: Madonne Ashwin
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Aditi Shankar, Mysskin
What happens when a wimp is given the power to turn a warrior? This is the premise of Madonne Ashwin’s Maaveeran. It is mass hero Sivakarthikeyan’s film after all, so one might envision a high-voltage vigilante action drama that quite neatly packs all its punches. Maaveeran is a little bit of everything – it is a lean and mean action hero flick that has enough mass moments to evoke triumphant fanfare. But it is powered by an equally efficient screenplay that is packed with intention and smarts — a screenplay, fully aware of its world and the star image it possesses, has ridiculous fun with the genre.
A lot of the credit also needs to be directed towards Sivakarthikeyan, whose boy-next-door aura makes him a tailor-made fit for Sathya, the unlikely ‘superhero’, who’d much rather be an ‘ordinary’ nobody. He is a cartoonist who writes about a Maaveeran (a super warrior) who saves princesses and vanquishes sinners. Although in reality, he chides his mother for her fearlessness and remains happily delirious letting a woman (Aditi Shankar) save him and give him a job. Madonne handles Sathya, an unlikely Tamil hero in an industry that glorifies its hyper-masculine figures as demigods, with a matter-of-factly approach that’s devoid of crass jokes. “Adjust panni vazhanam avlo dhan,” he tells his mom (an excellent Saritha), when she fights a losing battle with crummy party men who stop water supply to the poor, and also when she is forced to give up her ancestral house for a wave of gentrification.
You know the transformation from wimp to warrior is coming as the crumbs are all there. Makkal Maligai (People's Palace), a huge high-rise that Sathya and his community move into, crumbles piece by piece and he watches it all happen. “Odachitingala?” the repellent contractor asks the residents, reeking of casual casteism, when they speak up against inaction. Sathya, on the other hand, begins sketching his people’s problems in his cartoon and awakens a new side in himself. “How did you think of this idea?” his sub-editor Nila (Aditi Shankar) asks him. He might be unaware, but we know his inner beast is waiting to be awakened, even if we’re made to wait. Madonne makes this wait sweeter by giving us a “comedy track.” Now, comedy tracks in action films have their own track record for being ridiculously out of place. But Yogi Babu’s presence weirdly coalesces with Madonne’s world that it almost becomes a source of comfort.
The filmmaker’s flair for treading the very thin line between the hilarious and serious is a known fact by now, and he masters this art with Maaveeran, keeping his sensibilities intact. So, even the way he gives his superhero his origin story has a campy treatment, and stops just short of being heavy-handed. If this scene was a touch too cringe for you, he pulls you in with his brilliant use of Vijay Sethupathi in the film. So, even when Sathya turns his GI Joe face on, Madonne doesn’t let things in the genre take its own course but rewrites the modern beaten-up superhero arc with characteristic witticisms. It is this self-awareness that makes Maaveeran a rather fresh entry in Tamil cinema.
Even if the crumbs are already laid out for us, it is interesting to see how the film runs with it. We witness some striking imagery in the film — much of Maaveeran involves his lead star looking up to the sky with hilarious results. But when you look closely, you realise that the first ever shot of this kind occurs not when Maaveran is reborn, but when he steps into Makkal Maligai. As they reach their new home, we get this brilliant shot of the entire community looking up in awe, even before we see the house. After countless shots of looking up, there is one shot involving him (and minister MN Jeyakodi (Mysskin)) finally and ironically looking down — this effect that this pre-interval scene evokes is what gives this superhero film a unique, tangible quality.
The women in the film start out by having their own voice. Sarita is especially brilliant in depicting the angst of having birthed a wimpish son, but also loving him despite projecting her own pitfalls of being a single parent onto him. But Madonne doesn’t overlook the gaslighting in their equation. When she berates Sathya for not “manning up” and defending his sister’s honour, she realises her mistake when she hears the impact of her words on her son on a television. Sarita’s eyes speak volumes in this shot. But we wish Madonne explored this angst further with some more effort. While Aditi Shankar is a voice of reason in Sathya’s head, she could’ve done much more than just that in the film because she’s such an effortless presence on screen.
Even if the film pointlessly drags on towards the end, Madonne ensures that we’re intrigued and never remain unfazed by the characters in front of us. So, we might think we have a dummy villain in our hands, but the way Mysskin plays MN (or Maaveeran’s Yaman), is a big swing. The way one could draw the parallels between Yaman and Maaveeran silently dawns on us in a chilling scene involving Mysskin and Sunil.
Sathya might get his dramatic transformation in the end, but it still happens on Madonne’s terms. The way the film couples the massiness that Sivakarthikeyan brings with the funny guy next door Adhu Idhu Edhu-charm that Sivakarthikeyan once brought to our television for years, is cleverly executed. Sathya is scared of everything, but the fear takes a backseat when his own life is on the line. He isn’t driven by vigilantism, but by Darwin’s Survival of the fittest philosophy. So, when his battle for survival begins, we also get a fascinating character study.
But somewhere in its — very understandable — obsession with its complicated hero, Maaveeran sort of overlooks the hundreds of other nameless folks in his community that make him who he is. We get to hear the story of an auto-driver with a cute kid named Ilavarasi or the single mother who is scared for her infant’s health in their dilapidated apartment. But we never really get to see why their problems are important for the bigger picture or why this community forms an indispensable part of Sathya’s life.
Despite these cracks in Maaveeran, it is Madonne’s vision — which he makes a reality through Bharat Sunder’s novel score and Vidhu Ayyana’s frames — to give Tamil audiences a pulpy yet meaningful version of the superhero that they’ve been traditionally devouring in cinema halls that makes this film a commendable effort — an attempt at scaling the huge mountain that is the Tamil action hero film.