Director: R. Karthik
Cast: Ashok Selvan, Ritu Varma, Aparna Balamurali, Shivathmika Rajashekar
Ra Karthik’s Nitham Oru Vaanam borrows its title from AR Rahman’s underrated gem of a track in Thiruda Thiruda (1993) — ‘Putham pudhu bhoomi vendum, Nitham oru vaanam vendum, Thanga mazhai peiya vendum, Tamilil kuyil paada vendum,’ sings a wide-eyed Anu Aggarwal in Mani Ratnam’s heist drama, after happening upon the loot that she and her friends were after. The song posits a new world with new skies – a world of freedom, fantasy and limitless joy. A few minutes into Karthik’s Nitham Oru Vaanam, its ambitious title becomes clear. The coming-of-age drama is not just an ode to the song – a symbol of emancipation – but a worthy one at that.
We open on a stormy night in Bhubaneswar, where we hear airport announcements even before we see faces. Arjun (Ashok Selvan), a wilful-looking bespectacled man hurries his way to a deserted bus stand in Odisha when his flight to Kolkata gets cancelled. After unsuccessfully inquiring about the next bus to Kolkata in a language he struggles with (looking at you, Hindi imposition), he spots Subhadra (Ritu Varma) nestled in the corner. And Arjun’s eyes twinkle when her phone buzzes with a Baasha ringtone. And a friendship is born out of bare necessity. Arjun needs Subhadra’s help with Hindi, and the latter offers help in return for a bedtime story on Arjun's life to kill time until her bus arrives.
There are many ways one can describe Arjun, but a phrase that precisely describes his demeanour would be ‘sidu moonji’ (the Tamil equivalent of a grumpy cat). And peel this onion a bit further and you get a compulsive germaphobe, who does every task assigned to him with immaculate perfection. He tucks his bed in with hospital corners every morning, with the same amount of conviction that he leads an important presentation at work with. While his colleagues mockingly brand his eccentricities as “introverted”, the film doesn’t mine his behaviour for laughs. It instead paints the picture of a young man battling compulsiveness with a level of maturity. So, when he experiences heartbreak for the first time, we see him go straight to his childhood doctor who doubles up as his personal therapist. And here, his life is turned upside down.
Another thing you should know about Arjun is that he is not a stranger to books (you must have figured that one out by now), and also has the tendency — like most of us — to imagine himself as the characters he reads. So, when his doctor suggests he read her short stories of two couples — Veera and Meenakshi and Prabhu and Mathi — to ease his mind, we get to see Arjun relive these stories and rediscover himself in the process. And here’s where Karthik skilfully uses storytelling as a tool to choreograph an engaging anthology of heartwarming romances.
In Veera and Meenakshi’s (Ashok Selvan - Shivathmika Rajashekar) story — one of the film’s biggest strengths — we are introduced to an old-school romance in the angry young man meets meek-woman prototype. But Karthik breathes freshness into this tested trope with brilliance. He makes sure there is no room for toxicity that is often an accompaniment with the prototype. What we instead get is a meaningful slow-burn romance of a man supporting his partner (for context, he cooks, and she plays basketball). We are instantly reminded of the freshness of Karthik and Shakthi’s compelling romance from Alaipayuthey (2000), sans the complications.
But in Prabhu and Mathi’s track, we witness some of Nitham’s best performances. It helps that the portion features a wacky Aparna Balamurali as a runaway bride in full form (imagine Aparna’s wisecracking Bommi from Soorarai Pottru (2020) on steroids if you will). Ashok Selvan’s penchant for excelling in humour and awkward situations is well known at this point. And in Nitham Oru Vaanam, he finds the best partner in Aparna to riff off his lines with marvellous ease.
The film also leaves space for the women to shine by writing them as real, tangible characters, who aren’t mere accompaniments to the hero’s story. So, even if Subhadra (a lovely Ritu Varma) dances with the locals and teaches Arjun the art of hitchhiking, she is not reduced to a “bubbly” sidekick who fixes the broken pieces that is his life. She instead gets the film’s most meaningful lines and reminds us that women too can have broken hearts. “Even our saddest memories seem beautiful in places like these,” she tells Arjun as they take a pitstop amidst the snowy mountains of the Himalayas.
This is also perhaps why Arjun’s coming-of-age is so oddly satisfying. While the film does head for a predictable — and if I may say so, sappy — ending, we are still left charmed when Arjun is transformed not because of one-note female characters (whose sole purposes are to change him), but because of his own grasp on life and adventures. Vidhu Ayyanna’s camera patiently takes us through the changing, scenic cities of Manali, Coimbatore and Fort Kochi through moving cars, buses and trucks. And in the process we get a moving picture of a man desperately trying to get a new lease of his life.