Cast: Jyothika, GV Prakash Kumar
Bala’s new film, Naachiyaar, opens on acres of a trash-strewn landfill. As the credits flash by, the camera keeps moving, but there’s only garbage… and more garbage. Finally, we cross this sea of filth, and in the distance, we glimpse buildings, the big city. This visual can open any of Bala’s films, which focus lovingly on the castaways from society, the fringe dwellers, the people generally regarded (not by Bala, though) as “trash.” Now consider this line that appears much later: If an elephant moves, a few ants will be ground down. That’s destiny. This line, again, can fit into any of Bala’s films, which often portray the plight of helpless ants as powerful elephants go on a rampage. All of which is to say that one could make a case that Naachiyaar, in the context of the Bala oeuvre, is business as usual. But you’d be wrong.
This is Bala’s most positive movie. I don’t mean to suggest he’s turned into Sooraj Barjatya — at least, not unless a Sooraj Barjatya film has a scene where a suspect is interrogated with clamps holding her mouth open as a dental drill threatens to uproot all her teeth. But for the first time in this director’s career, we sense… hope. Bala’s dialogues are often very funny, and here, we get an exchange between two men where one says God likes to torment the poor. The other man replies, “Then let’s make a fresh God.” Recall Paradesi, where God was a silent observer, almost cruel in His refusal to raise a little finger to help people in pain. In Naachiyaar, Bala does a 180 — he presents the possibility of another God, not one that does His own thing but one that we can mould according to our desires.
The film, fittingly, is about redemption, forgiveness, acceptance — and it involves a bit of misdirection. We think this is the story of Arasi (Irina) and Kaathu (GV Prakash). The former is a minor, and pregnant. The latter, her lover, is jailed for rape. Despite the film being named after her, ACP Naachiyaar (Jyothika) is almost an afterthought in the first half — and we follow the utterly generic romance between Arasi and Kaathu, reminiscent of the love angle in Angadi Theru. Bala takes pains to showcase the menial jobs they perform to earn a living, but he forgets to make us invest in this relationship. There’s a stretch in the second half where Arasi undertakes a bus journey to get to Kaathu, because she realises he has no money to buy food. She keeps asking the conductor when they will get there. She weeps that it’s taking so long. We see the depth of her emotion but we don’t feel it. This is not the character doing something. It’s the actor doing something simply because the director asked her to.
But consider this line from Kaathu: “Yenna maadhiri pasangalukku lover dhaan amma.” (For people like me, the lover is the mother.) It makes no sense in the milieu of the romance, but it hints at where the story is headed. Naachiyaar is about motherhood — rather, parenthood. It’s about Naachiyaar and her sulking daughter, who feels that work always comes first for her mother. It’s about Kaathu’s feelings for Arasi’s child. It’s about Naachiyaar’s assistant (Rockline Venkatesh, the producer) and the fact that he has a daughter. Why does Naachiyaar do so much to help Arasi. Because, as she says in the end, Arasi is like a daughter — a parent would do anything for a child.
Would you call on Jyothika to embody this badass cop who acts first and thinks later? I burst out laughing in the scene where Naachiyaar smashes the glass door of a steam room — with her bare hands — in order to apprehend the villain. It just looks… wrong.
The film, then, is about Naachiyaar’s transformation as she begins to work on Arasi’s case. Starting out as a brutal enforcer of justice, she begins to realise that catching the bad guy doesn’t always help the victim, and that sometimes, it’s about doing what’s best rather than what’s right. Bala sees this woman as a “professional rowdy” rather than a member of the police. The title design has barbed wire around the name, and when Naachiyaar enters the police station, Ilayaraja fills the soundtrack with electric guitar riffs. Naachiyaar barks out her lines. She growls as though possessed by the spirit of Rajakali Amman. She surgically emasculates a rapist. Would you call on Jyothika to embody this badass cop who acts first and thinks later? I burst out laughing in the scene where Naachiyaar smashes the glass door of a steam room — with her bare hands — in order to apprehend the villain. It just looks… wrong.
But this isn’t about the performance. It’s about the writing. The emotional through-lines are so indifferently handled that the crux — the debate whether Arasi needs justice (in the cold, legal sense of the word) or a good life — is lost. Naachiyaar runs just 100 minutes, and even then, it seems overstretched. The story is presented as a series of dubious flashbacks, with the narrators (like Arasi’s father) sometimes having no chance of knowing what really happened. But this kind of “cheating” is still forgivable if we buy into the film. I was never able to do that. The first half is practically a washout. It’s one long slog till the interval twist that transforms the narrative into a whodunit — but that angle doesn’t work either. We get cheap red herrings and badly staged black-and-white reveals.
The supporting characters in Bala’s films usually stand out, but the ones here are entirely forgettable — from the gray-haired mechanic who works opposite Kaathu’s fruit stand, to the ironing lady with folded jeans, to the strange woman who thinks it’s okay to wear a “Fuck You” T-shirt in a judge’s chambers, to Naachiyaar’s daughter who speaks only in English. Like Mysskin, Bala likes a broad, stylised kind of performance — but when the characters aren’t backed by strong writing, the actors come off like over-enthusiastic children in a school play. GV Prakash and Ivana have their moments, but only the actress playing Kaathu’s beef-loving grandmother escapes unscathed. It’s a classic Bala character, filled with empathy, and in her brief screen time, we get (for the only time in the movie) the sense of a real person.
I’ve often wished Bala would lighten up (even more than he did in Avan Ivan, which is still a tragedy) — but Naachiyaar proves that it’s the shock value in his films that cover up a lot of his problem areas, like the staging. When you’re punched in the gut (or to get a tad more Bala-esque, hit on the skull with a sledgehammer), you are so overwhelmed that you probably don’t notice how patchy the direction is. But Naachiyaar does away with the blood and gore and nihilism, and we see how unstaged the Muslim wedding or the dinner scene in the Marwari household is. It’s as though the editor patched together some random footage shot by the second unit. Bala may have made a different movie, but this is certainly not a Bala movie.