Director: Anand Shankar
Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Mehreen Pirzada, Nasser, Sathyaraj
Towards the end of Anand Shankar’s NOTA, Varun (Vijay Devarakonda) says, “Pudhiyavan aana ennai aasayodu varavettra Thamizh makkale…” (The Tamils have so lovingly welcomed a newcomer like me…) This is the story of a youngster thrust into the position of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. This is also the story of a young actor thrust into the leading role of his first Tamil film. The line functions as both gratitude (within the movie) and wish-fulfilment (without). These are the emotions I felt during NOTA. It’s not perfect, but I was grateful for this bit of wish-fulfilment. Why pick a plot line we’ve already seen in Mudhalvan and Bharat Ane Nenu? Then again, why not? If we are okay with the 65,467th iteration of a “mass” movie, why resist something that tries to assure us that things can get better, if only for two-and-a-half hours?
At least, that’s what I told myself during the setup, which occurs exactly as we expect. The film opens with Varun celebrating his birthday with a pool party, with shots, male friends in shorts, and female friends in something shorter. (None of Sam CS’s songs stay in mind.) While driving home, he’s picked up by the cops — not for drunk driving but because his father, who’s the state’s CM (Vinodhan, played by Nasser), is being prosecuted in an illegal assets case and needs a placeholder. (Or a “benami CM,” as MK Stalin would put it.) Who better than Varun, a political naïf, someone who designs video games in London and can’t wait to get back? At first, Varun is uninterested. He can barely look away from the game he’s playing to sign important papers. But soon, the Big Transformative Event™ happens. This time, it’s a little girl trapped in a fire. Her mother’s soot-stained hands fall on Varun’s pure-white shirt. A similar fate awaits Varun, who’ll have to wade into the cesspool of politics.
NOTA is essentially a record of Tamil Nadu politics over the last few years. We don’t get a scene where mixture is munched at a heated public gathering, but we do get an ailing CM in a hospital where the CCTV footage is manipulated. We get state-owned TV channels hailing the CM even as rival channels tear him down. We get MLAs being whisked off to a resort. We get spineless yes-men. (The way they stoop in front of Vinodhan, they literally seem to be spineless.) Like many of our CMs, Vinodhan is a former actor, and this “cinema culture” is manifest in flex boards, where Varun shakes hands with Trump. A lot of this is played for laughs, but when a flood situation comes up, due to a dam that needs to be opened at the last minute, I sobered up. If only real life had been so. If only we’d had such a quick-thinking leader…
“If only” is why I’m a sucker for these films. Mudhalvan ends with Chennai becoming a megapolis like Singapore. But I’d settle for Varun’s plan to clean up the Cooum. Vijay Deverakonda totally sells this idealism. He’s probably like Varun himself, a Millennial who’s disgusted with the old way of doing things and realises that brash (yet practical) ideas are the way forward: a “Rowdy” CM, so to speak, who might urge voters to press the EVM button with their middle finger. NOTA stays focused on Varun. Despite a potential heroine in Swathi (Mehreen Pirzada), there’s no love angle. Kayal (Sanchana Natarajan) makes more of an impression as a political rival. The two songs are dispensable, but at least, you can justify them — the first establishes Varun’s “before”, and the second is a trap.
The way Varun wriggles out of this trap is a punch moment (a big-shot filmmaker makes a special appearance) — but it’s not punchy enough. The filmmaking is clean — Anand Shankar is a good craftsman. But his writing (with Shan Karuppusamy) could have used more drafts. There’s no shock when a big shot becomes the victim of a bomb attack. A subplot involving offshore accounts is laughably simplistic. And a godman-villain is way too underwritten. There’s some drama in the flashbacks involving Vinodhan and a journalist named Mahendran (Sathyaraj, fun as always). But this conflict isn’t developed satisfactorily. Attention to these details could have made NOTA a great film. It’s now merely a watchable one, kept afloat by scenes like the one where the city’s youths become government officials. It gives you hope. It’s only a movie. It’s a band-aid on a gushing artery. But it gives you hope.