Cast: Suriya, Sai Pallavi, Rakul Preet Singh
In NGK, Suriya plays Kumaran, an organic farmer (M Tech, Ph.D.) and overall local do-gooder. One night, he finds a political party worker (Bala Singh) lying by a dumpster, bloody and wounded, and his first impulse is to…do good. He helps the man up. As they begin to walk, the man explains what happens. He wanted money for his daughter's wedding, but when he asked his MLA for help, the latter asked to sleep with his daughter. The party worker refused. Hence his current state. He says educated people like Kumaran should do good, yes, but this isn't enough—they should enter politics. Kumaran is not convinced, but the shot tells us otherwise. Sivakumar Vijayan's camera has followed the two men from the dumpster, and as they climb a flight of stairs to the high ground, we see a gutter behind them. The gutter recedes in the background as they reach the top of the stairs, where we see a banner with MGR's picture. See what just happened? The two men started out in the filth and now they've journeyed to a (metaphorical) great height, symbolised by a do-gooder whose name comes with three initials (MGR/NGK).
How many directors you know can sum up the story of their film in a single shot? This superb early scene promises that writer-director Selvaraghavan will unearth something new in a field a lot of recent films (NOTA, Bharat Ane Nenu, Sarkar) have ploughed. Going in, we wonder: what's the angle? Kumaran's mother says he's mad about the country, so will this figurative insanity turn literal? (Will we gradually see Kumaran get unhinged, like a typical Selvaraghavan protagonist?) Or, are we going to see a more rustic take on the political idealist (and do-gooder) character Suriya played in Aayidha Ezhuthu? Or, with its echoes of Indian and Mudhalvan, will NGK play like a Shankar film, with Kumaran becoming a political vigilante? Or better yet, are we in for a Pudhupettai-like tale of a lowly party worker's rise through the ranks, showing us how he picks up the tricks of the trade (spouting rhetoric in senthamizh, knowing how to oil up your political boss and yet play a double game)? After all, Kumaran does sing "Pattaampoochi inge pachondi ya aachu" (in Yuvan Shankar Raja's – Thandalkaaran), and his name even sounds like that of 'Kokki' Kumaru.
But the film is just a series of bland and very obvious scenes. Now, going into a Suriya starrer, one hardly expects to see the wife of a troubled photographer scrubbing away blood from her own miscarriage, or a descendent of the Pandiyas urinating into a pot and making love to an enemy king. But given that Selvaraghavan is at the helm, you still expect some edge, some ambition. Yes, NGK is this director's smoothest film to date. It's an easy watch. It's made with finesse. But that's a really low bar for a Selvaraghavan film to clear. Wouldn't you rather have the jagged edges of an Aayirathil Oruvan or an Irandaam Ulagam, where good or bad, the ride is thrillingly bonkers and you don't see what's coming next?
It's easy to see why a good director would dial down his eccentricities, his uniqueness after a series of flops. (Selvaraghavan could well be asking: Well, if you don't buy tickets to my experimental films, why should I not play safe?) But this eccentricity, this uniqueness is why we worship these directors, and without these qualities, the film feels even more of a letdown. Let me put it this way. Is NGK a more "coherent" movie than Irandaam Ulagam? Most certainly. But it also feels like a work devoid of fingerprints, like one of those poems signed by "Anonymous". Heck, I would have even settled for one of those "genius"-type Selvaraghavan heroes—like how the 7G Rainbow Colony protagonist is an expert at assembling a bike or how the Kaadhal Konden protagonist is a mathematics ace who solves scary-looking problems involving scary-sounding concepts like "divergence theorem". If Kumaran were nothing more than a political "genius", that would have still been an angle.
But the man is a simple idealist who seems alarmingly unaware about politics being a dirty business. (Maybe he doesn't watch many Tamil films?) And when he does begin to get his hands dirty, we never get into his headspace to the extent that we remain convinced about his actions. (A lot remains off-screen, and we have to keep guessing.) When the film's title was announced, I wondered if "Nandha Gopalan Kumaran" was a reference to (or at least a derivation from) the Thiruppavai, whose first verse contains those names, in that exact order: "Koorvel kodunthozhilan Nandagopan Kumaran". NGK is even set in Srivilliputtur, the birthplace of Andal, who wrote these verses. But nothing seems to come out of it. Even when Kumaran is writhing, there's nothing really deep inside, nothing poetic, nothing psychological. Suriya is fantastically earnest (this is the least "starry" he's been in a while), but Kumaran is as easy to read as the dialogues that describe him. A friend tells him, "Nee school-lendhu ippa mattum naadu naadu nu irukke." That's what passes for characterisation. Worse, that's what passes for dialogue.
The women are more disappointing. Selvaraghavan's heroines usually have arcs—or at least, scenes—on par with the hero, but Sai Pallavi (as Kumaran's wife, Geetha) and a sharp Rakul Preet Singh (as Vanathi, a political analyst) are wasted. Geetha is saddled with a really odd jealousy subplot (earlier, she smelt "mann vaasanai" on her husband, now she smells Versace perfume). And for all of Vanathi being an MA in Political Science from Cambridge University, she's reduced to singing a duet with Kumaran. Again, the performances aren't the problem (though Sai Pallavi oversells a couple of scenes in the second half). It's the characters. When I interviewed Selvaraghavan in 2017, he said, "I was a wild horse. Now, I've been tamed." But this looks more like he's been defanged.
Every time we get to an interesting point, it's left unexplored. Kumaran asks Vanathi to set up a meeting with "corporate kingmakers" and… Kumaran is asked to develop his own style of speechifying and… As the film builds to a familiar (and rushed) climax, all we are left with is a handful of nicely idiosyncratic touches. A Chief Minister (Devaraj) who dyes his hair and watches Gone With The Wind. A lot of rain (admittedly not an unpleasant sight in this scorching summer). Yuvan Shankar Raja's spirited score (and that Thimiranumda song sequence). A few action moves, where we feel the impact of Kumaran's fury rather than just the pull of gravity. And that's it. The familiarity of the milieu is not the problem. When you watch Pudhupettai, you don't think of the hundred gangster films that came before it. Thematically and stylistically, the film felt like a genre's rebirth. NGK just feels like a rehash.