Cast: Dhanush, Indhuja Ravichandran, Elli Avrram, Prabhu, Selvaraghavan, Yogi Babu
Selvaraghavan’s new film feels like a spiritual successor to his previous, Nenjam Marappathillai (2021). It’s another straightforward tale of vengeance led by a supernatural spirit. But what’s sorely missing this time, are the wild, stylistic swings he took in his previous film. Naane Varuvean feels devoid of a singular, colourful vision for most parts, because it chooses to, confoundingly, pack in two extremes. We get expressive, cinematic moments that can only be found in a Selvaraghavan film, alongside the most banally conceived moments that are typical to mainstream Tamil cinema. There’s a grey character’s rage-averting dance of jubilance, and also a “comedian sidekick” used as an exposition dump. Multiple instances like the latter keep taking the seriousness out of a film that could’ve become a genre piece had it been left on its own.
This is a story about the after-effects of childhood trauma on brothers. Prabhu (Dhanush) doesn’t even want a sibling for his own daughter because of a turbulent past with his twin. Kathir (Dhanush) grows up facing dark and traumatic adversities after being abandoned by his family. But the film never tries to explore the root cause of Kathir’s trauma. When we meet him for the first time, he’s already exhibiting deviant behaviour. Sure, any sort of abuse as backlash can cause trauma, but how do we get on board with a one-note character who’s basically deviant from the word go? No amount of Yuvan Shankar Raja’s rousing score is going to help prop him up. This is probably why they say storytelling might need more (emotional) logic than reality does.
There sure is a sense of duality sprinkled through the screenplay. The narration of both Prabhu and Kathir’s adult lives begins with a sugary montage song. Kathir has twins of his own too. Similarly, there’s a clear separation between the two halves of the film. The first half is a slow but measured buildup toward a subversive interval block, while the second is one long flashback immediately followed by a quick climax, with hardly any affecting in-betweens. This contradiction is felt very strongly, with all the initial promise not leading to a substantial payoff, thus making it the biggest takeaway of the film.
It is lowkey exciting how the makers keep us guessing if there’s a supernatural element at all, by positioning the childhood portions early on. Our knowledge of Prabhu’s past adds to the ominous nature of events in the present. Sathya’s possession is a gradual process, and it’s spooky every bit of the way. Special kudos to the child actress who is phenomenal in portraying the escalating helplessness of an otherwise smart child.
Dhanush as Prabhu, the deeply caring common-man father, plays him with a calculated subtlety that makes their equation worth rooting for. The editing too, comes in handy in a couple of moments that are meant to be driven by the scares. This is how the first half puts up an all-round good show, in spite of Yogi Babu’s unseemly presence. He might even be funny, but this film surely doesn’t need him. It’s a jarringly odd choice even if it’s meant for the audience, because the makers clearly deem them smart enough to understand and not question stuff like how and why Sonu’s “soul” chooses Sathya as his medium.
The film is also noticeably patronizing towards its secondary characters. The wife played by Indhuja and the ghostbuster gang of youngsters, are either severely underutilised or are pitched at such a tone where we’re laughing at them. Indhuja as Prabhu’s wife is contained to condescendingly dull levels of naivety and dependance. The youngsters are pitched as a bunch of immature freaks. So is the stoner gang that comes in a pivotal moment in the flashback – it is a scene that’s supposed to be brimming with tension, but is instead punctured by juvenile and inorganically written behaviour of inebriated characters.
For all the regressive mishandling of characters, there’s one moment that rings a bell of progressiveness. It’s when Sathya (around 12 years old) tells her father that she needs him to take her to a psychiatrist. Prabhu’s attempts at creating a comfortable space for her to open up are also refreshingly commendable. It made me want to see Selvaraghavan doing a grounded family drama again, sans any fantastical element.
In retrospect, there’s a recurring usage of the hunter-becoming-the-hunted arc. A young Kathir hunts down a savage hunter played by Selvaraghavan – a character who is eccentric but is written with depth enough to mirror the jingoistic enthusiasm of first-day-first-show fanboys. The rest of the story is entirely about a hunter’s son hunting down his father, through a supernatural route. Such are the interesting ideas held within the story, but there’s not much to dig into beyond the surface. The exasperatingly implausible climax, staged on a cliff, ends with a – cliffhanger. This is the sort of “complexity” that the film operates at. Such an idea may have actually come across as a cheeky stroke of genius in a more consistently unconventional film, but the tonal imbalance here doesn’t help its case.
With a potent lead in Dhanush, and good child actors, this could’ve been a far more effective film had the writing cared to reveal characters beyond the plot. I like the detail of how Prabhu addresses Sathya only with respect (neenga, vaanga as opposed to nee, vaa, vaadi). This informs her significance to him, and at the same time lends weight to the fact that he doesn’t want another child. We don’t get any such touch for Kathir, who is as one-dimensional as an antagonist can get.
The well-directed final scene, with tight closeups and cuts like that of a spaghetti western, left me wondering what the makers are even trying to say. Is it a promise of a sequel, is it a hark back to the astrologer’s warning of impending death, or is it simply about a cynical worldview that evil will persist, no matter what? I’d like to stop thinking here. The ambiguity in the ending doesn’t help in adding any meaning to the film, making this quite an insipid offering from the endearingly ambitious stable of Selvaraghavan.