Cast: Udhayanidhi Stalin, Aari, Tanya Ravichandran, Shivani Rajashekar
Director: Arunraja Kamaraj
Aptly titled Nenjuku Needhi or ‘justice by the heart’, this film explores the difference between what is justice by the rulebook, the mind, and what is justice that is driven by the heart; by one’s emotions. Nenjukku Needhi is also the title of the famous autobiographical essay written by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the grandfather of the primary actor of this film namely Udhayanidhi Stalin.
After acting in about a dozen films over the last ten years, he has chosen to quit films with this and the next film and choosing instead to enter the high-octane field of the democratic practices in the DMK party. In a way, this film is a kind of statement of purpose submitted by this 45-year-old actor to express his commitment and deep desire to abide by justice and the rule of law from his heart, from here onward in real life. And honestly, he looks much younger, promising us some good time for Tamil Nadu in the future.
But choosing to remake the highly acclaimed Hindi film, Article 15 as a sign off into such a leap forward is indeed throwing oneself a big challenge. For one, there are none of the heroic fights and the song singing sequences that are usually associated with heroic potential. Next, the original film by Anubhav Sinha, the deep grim saga of the caste entrenched villages of the north Indian belt lends a lot more authenticity to that northern milieu than in Tamil Nadu.
And finally, the Hindi film is well structured within the old film noir genre, brilliantly shot by Ewan Mulligan and consequently having most of his scenes shot by sunset, nights and dark indoors. Nenjuku Needhi, as you all know, is about Article 15 enshrined in the Indian constitution which condemns any form of discrimination passed on, based on caste, race, gender, religion and place of birth. And yet, as we all know that this has been pure wishful thinking for most Indians because we observe these discriminatory differences normally as if it is part of one’s nature.
So, Vijaya Raghavan played by Udhayanidhi comes from a sophisticated urban background and was even educated abroad; far removed from some of the grim realities of the south Indian hinterland. He takes over as inspector of police of a small district dominated by caste differences only to land up into instances of rape, honour killings, crooked local politicians and a corrupt police force with him. Every moment here is thus a learning arc for him and he keeps discussing this constantly over the phone with his wife, played by Tanya Ravichandran, an intellectual in the city who keeps slamming him for being part of an incompetent police system.
So, the story is about how this young IPS officer manages to address justice by his emotional feelings rather than going strictly by the rule of law. In short, a great story of an outsider who comes into an unknown environment and then takes us, the urban viewers, along a journey of discovery wherein he symbolically carries the book ‘Discovery of India’ by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as a small noticeable gesture in the film.
But however much I try to erase Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 from my mind and see this film afresh, I’m unable to do that. And that is simply because Sinha’s film chose the most appropriate formal approach to do this kind of a subject. Article 15 attempts to be as grounded and minimal as possible so that it can allow us, the naïve urban observer to see and learn about the complex caste relations observed by the people in these areas as totally normal, as a given. On the other hand, Nenjuku Needhi slides into melodrama ever too often, portraying things in sharp black and white and then becoming highly dependent on dialogues to convey meanings and messages. The film empathises with characters sometimes who have hardly been shown in the film. So, like many other melodramatic Tamil films, this film has dubbing of voices which is disproportionately loud. And the biggest killer of them all is the background music score by Dibhu Thomas. It is excessively loud almost making us feel that the cinematographer and the director have not done their job enough to communicate their feeling. Why do you want to amplify this so much? And then there is a long montage sequence to the accompaniment of a Therukoothu dance which throws the entire rhythm off balance.
Such a subject is primarily learnt, meant for the urban audiences and the film should allow them to immerse into what is that kind of territory which is infested with pigs, where communities are segregated wantonly, where schools observe such cast practices at primary levels, in casual ways. You see honour killings and police atrocities are more newspaper headlines for the urban population like us. How does it actually transpire in these spaces.
So, in a way compared to the north Indian rural belt of Bihar and UP, the Tamil people have waged this struggle against caste and religion directly since the 1920s of the colonial period under the mentorship of brilliant personalities like Periyar, Annadurai and the Dravidian movement at large. The situation here is comparatively more inclusive, and homogenous and therefore it is not as sharp and obvious as we see it in the Hindi film. It, therefore, becomes the responsibility of the writer-director Kamaraj and cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan to nuance it further and enhance the story already there in the original.
The person who holds the connect for us in this film is undoubtedly Udhayanidhi Stalin. His restrained performance sends the signal to everybody on the set to come on an underplayed wavelength. You see, he knows how to be gentle, stern and angry with just minimal shifts in his performance. It is indeed sad that he has chosen to bid goodbye to a promising career with this film. Well, that is his calling and let us wish him all the best in the future.