Navarasa, On Netflix, Has Great Craft And Terrific Performances But Feels Generic
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Directors: Bejoy Nambiar (Edhiri), Priyadarshan (Summer of ‘92), Karthik Naren (Project Agni), Vasanth (Payasam), Karthik Subbaraj (Peace), Arvind Swami (Roudhram), Rathindran R. Prasad (Inmai), Sarjun KM (Thunintha Pin), Gautham Vasudev Menon (Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru)
Cast: Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Parvathy, Remya Nambeesan, Prayaga Martin, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Yogi Babu, Arvind Swamy, Bobby Simha, Aditi Balan, Rohini, Delhi Ganesh, Revathi, Prakash Raj, Prasanna, Nedumudi Venu, Atharvaa, Anjali

Navarasa is an anthology of nine films based on the nine rasas. It’s produced and presented by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan to help the daily wage workers in the film industry hit by the pandemic. The artists and technicians worked without remuneration, so there’s no question about the merit of the project itself. Let’s look at the merit of the individual films.

In the order presented by Netflix, Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri comes first, with Prakash Raj, Vijay Sethupathi and Revathi, who is simply spectacular. All acting is a combination of the director’s input and the actor’s instinct, but it’s the artist who has to put it in front of the camera. There are two acting moments I am going to remember for a long, long time. The first one is when she goes into a room and sees something terrible. We’re not shown what it is but you expect a scream. Instead, she just retreats in a horrified silence; it’s an amazing scene. The second moment: after a tragedy, she doesn’t cry and her face is absolutely still but you get a sense of so many emotions on her face. Later we learn whether she could have done anything better in the past or how the tragedy has ended everything in her life. And she shows all this with an almost still life-like expression on her face. She’s simply magnificent.

The film, however, is less so. It’s certainly interesting as a concept, something like an interior monologue from a Dostoevsky novel. And I loved Revathi’s big speech at the end, which is about a series of what-ifs. But the film is very wordy and doesn’t have the power that the premise suggests. It has some qualities that we see in quite a few of the films in this anthology: some great craft, some terrific performances, but also, an overall sense of generic-ness.

Also, many of the films make you wonder if we should begin to rethink the purpose of songs and background scores. Do we really need to emphasise the sadness on someone’s face with two lines of a sad song? Isn’t the acting enough? Priyadarshan’s Summer of ‘92 is especially guilty of this, where the score is as non-stop like in a cartoon. Yogi Babu plays a Yogi Babu-like character: someone from a modest background becomes a big comedy star and returns to his old school to give a speech recalling incidents from the past. Again at the end, we are left with a sense of generic-ness. This is the hasya rasa (comedy)  but the one time I laughed out loud was in the next film, when the character played by Prasanna is thoroughly mindfucked and tells Arvind Swamy’s character, “Now, I’ll have the whisky.”

The film is Karthik Naren’s Project Agni, and it’s a very curious creature. It’s overtly derivative of Hollywood and the director himself makes no bones about it. He name-drops both Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick. He also does a hat tip to Indian myths by naming a couple Vishnu and Lakshmi. And he does something that is very difficult to do in our films: he gets the right mix of Tamil and English in the dialogues. The writing is solid and builds its sci-fi universe really well, with well-timed explanations that never feel like spoon feeding. We feel as mindfucked as the Prasanna character. And yet, there’s no ‘wow’ by the end which feels like a cheap twist. But Arvind Swamy is superb here. His pauses, his gestures — you believe every moment he’s in. They say people become better actors as they grow older, have more life experience. If that’s true, then he is proof.

Vasanth Sai makes one of the best films of the anthology. Payasam is based on a Thi. Janakiraman story. Vasanth’s trajectory has been one of the most unusual in Tamil cinema. Usually, directors start out strong and then lose their craft and sense of storytelling as they go along. But the early Vasanth was a maker of pleasant, middlebrow dramas about the middle class. His mainstream films were more about the writing and the performances. You wouldn’t exactly call his work “pure cinema”. But ever since he shifted to what we might call parallel cinema, with films like Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, he has become a superb craftsman. That film too was based on stories by three major writers Ashokamitran, Jeyamohan and Aadhavan but the final product was so much more.

In Payasam, Vasanth tells a simple story with brilliant contributions from his team, editor Sangathamizhan E,  cinematographer Sathyan Sooriyan and music director Justin Prabhakaran who is one of the few composers in the anthology who goes with the flow of the film rather than trying to put his signature on the music (which could make it random). The setting is a Tambrahm wedding in 1965 and the narrative is driven by the feelings felt by the character played by Delhi Ganesh, who is solid as always. The way Vasanth builds these emotions on the one hand and the wedding preparations on the other hand is terrific. At the end, you get that wonderful snap like when a good short story ends. 

The next film is by Karthik Subbaraj, who totally atones for the excesses of Jagame Thanthiram. This is his first full-fledged Eelam film and it’s filled with his trademark brilliant craft: single takes, a simple 180-degree camera move that establishes two different geographies with the same location. The story stars Gautham Menon, Sananth and Bobby Simha and what starts as casual banter slowly builds into a tense mission. At the end, we get a message. But we also get an instant subversion of that message. Like Payasam, the simplicity of the story and the complexity of the craft and ideas behind it make Peace work. The ending, especially, is really powerful.

And then, we get the best film of the anthology, by a newbie director called Arvind Swami. In every possible sense, this film blew my mind. Santosh Sivan is back in full form. The flow of the story, the craft, the performances by Riythvika and Sreeram — everything fits together phenomenally well. The dialogues and the staging need special mention. My favourite shot is a sudden extreme close-up that emphasizes the suddenness of our realization about who a character really is. 

There’s such depth and density in this story about anger — and it plays tricks with you. Whose anger is it really? The easily externalised anger of one character or the simmering internalised anger of another character? And what timelines are we in? The major misdirections and minor touches — like a line equating women with gold — are beautifully done. Again, like in the Karthik Subbaraj short, we get what sounds like a message but it is camouflaged in a school speech and totally subverted by the end. This is really brilliant stuff.

Then we get Inmai, by Rathindran R. Prasad starring Siddharth and Parvathy Thiruvothu. We are back to the flavour of the first few films: some great craft and good performances but there’s a sense of generic-ness. The power in the story about a woman who meets a mysterious man doesn’t translate to a powerful film. The same could be said about Sarjun’s film, starring Atharva and Kishore. The last scene is great which gives you a wonderful sense of incompleteness, a question mark hanging over everything that’s happened. But the rest of the film — which is mostly a philosophical conversation between an STF officer and a Naxal — doesn’t build up to it. Again, instead of sharp and specific emotions, we are left with a sense of generic-ness.

Finally, we get to the biggest film of the lot, starring Suriya and Prayaga Rose Martin, and directed by Gautham Menon. It’s a mixed bag but the concept is superb. The storyline subverts the traditional arc of a romantic movie with a beginning, middle and end of a relationship. I won’t spoil it for you, but what Gautham does is just right for a short film.

But the film is some fifteen minutes too long and some portions in the middle feel repetitive. There’s a song in a nightclub that feels like it could have been chopped off and nothing would have been lost. Another song uses the prelude of ‘Ninnukori’ from Agni Natchathiram and I think Gautham is also doing a hat-tip to the Mani Ratnam romance from the late 80s. But after a point, the cuteness in the dialogues feels off, and I think the same flavour would have worked had the duration been shorter.

But I loved the last stretch, where Gautham experiments by telling the story almost entirely through song. I just did not see that end coming. Prayaga Rose Martin has an interesting vibe, to use a word from the film. She’s someone who’s too sure of herself and she vibes well with Suriya, who is in good form. The role is not exactly a stretch for the actor but he pulls it off. The real real heroes however are editor Anthony and cinematographer PC Sreeram, who finally seems to have found his vibe with Gautham, after their rather generic outing in ‘Avarum Naanum – Avalum Naanum’ from Putham Pudhu Kaalai. The colours pop and the framing — with a lot of close ups — is exquisite. This man, he’s truly a legend and I hope Gautham gets to make a full-length feature with him as it looks like they’ve struck a chord. It’s going to be really interesting to see what they do together.

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