Director: Madonne Ashwin
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Aditi Shankar, Mysskin
It’s only fair that director Madonne Ashwin lists Stranger Than Fiction as number one on his list of influences for Maaveeran. Like the 2006 comedy, Maaveeran too is about a protagonist who starts hearing a strange voice narrate everything that’s happening in his life. Much of the comedy in both films arise from the fact that the protagonists (Will Ferrell as an IRS officer in the older film and Sivakarthikeyan, a cartoonist here) are reacting to what this voice says in third person and what it does to change their lives. But small tweaks to the basic idea of Stranger Than Fiction gives Maaveeran a dimension very few people could have seen coming; not only was Madonne able to see a mainstream Tamil film usurping this concept, he was also able to see the mighty Baasha (1995) making full use of it too.
If this concept from Stranger Than Fiction gives Maaveeran its heart, then its body belongs to Baasha. In fact, the film spends a considerable amount of time underlining Sathya (Sivakarthikeyan’s) weaknesses. Right from the very first scene in which Sathya begs his mother (a lovely Saritha) to stop fighting with a local politician, you see how he behaves like a passive nobody, uninterested in matters that are bigger than him. Apolitical to a fault, all he cares about is a monthly salary and just the bare minimum to keep his family afloat. Even at his job as a cartoonist, you see how he’s being taken advantage of because he does not have the courage to ask questions.
Even if you’ve already predicted the pattern the film is going to follow after this setup, there is still a freshness in the way this zero transforms into a hero. Like how his stoic character contributes to much of the comedy in Doctor (2021), his cowardice results in lovely scenes, even in an otherwise basic love angle. It is Nila (Aditi Shankar) who first initiates a mini transformation in Sathya by getting him the job he’s been working towards. On bike rides, Sathya sits behind her and you also understand Sathya’s attraction towards Nila is a result of how she’s just as bold and strong as his mother. Given how the first hour plays out, it is almost as though Sathya is merely a character in a film that is meant to be about someone else.
Which is when the film transforms into the format of a superhero’s origins story. A dark, hopeless night, a divine intervention and a hero that has accepted his defeat—Sathya gets his superpowers in an epic sequence straight out of a classic Marvel movie. Yet the details that have gone in, including the idea of a Tamil phrase turning into ink and then entering into Sathya’s “psyche”, can only come from a man with very original visual ideas. And this is also why the film continues to feel super original even though the influences are clear.
An example of this comes in the way the concept of this strange voiceover becomes THE superpower. Instead of this superpower instantly making Sathya invincible, he pretty much remains the same right through. What this voiceover does is give him a warning, seconds before something major takes place. As a result, everything Sathya does, including beating up a small army of men, work out with a believable hilarity. It’s as though the film has decided to keep him ordinary, even with a superpower.
And that keeps Sathya loveable right through the film. His doubts, his vulnerabilities and his inaction continue almost till the end and the superpower creates as many problems for him as solutions. And this is the central highlight of the film too because the opposition isn’t exactly particularly interesting. Much of the film is set in a government-sponsored resettlement complex and the central issue is the crumbling infrastructure provided to its residents. Naturally, the enemy then becomes the government in power and that is who Sathya has to take on.
Mysskin is perfect as this larger-than-life minister but there’s not much writing that has gone into Sathya’s opposition. It is the problems and characters within the apartment complex that makes the film tick instead. This includes an absolutely in-form Yogi Babu who plays a character named ‘Patchwork’. He gets the film’s best lines, holding it all together even when the film begins to feel gimmicky. This also includes a cameo by Dilipan, representing the mentality of the common man much like Sathya.
This drop in excitement later on is partly due to the same worries one felt right at the interval. The film leaves you with such a high that it becomes difficult for the film to match that. And with the film having to become more serious given the scale of the issues, it also enters into the regular space of an AR Murugadoss film once the novelty of its original concept runs out. And that’s pretty much what you feel with most of the second half of Maaveeran. We have already got the big Baasha transformation action scene in the first half, what difference is one more going to make in the second half?
The magic of the voiceover too dries up and even the action scenes, including one on a boat, offer nothing we haven’t yet seen before. And apart from a clever use of a character named Illavarasi, there are no surprises and little comedy. It’s as though the film decided to grow into a full-blown mass-action movie in its last half hour and in that process, it becomes as generic as any other mass-action film of recent times.
But even when the film starts to feel too familiar, the warmth of the characters and the sheer joy of the first hour keeps us invested. Maybe the film needed a few more ideas to work as a whole. Or maybe the voiceover begins to feel like a gimmick after a certain point. Somewhere in the middle, we lost a great film to just another good film.