Director: Sy Gowthamraj
Cast: Jyothika, Hareesh Peradi
The opening of Raatchasi, written and directed by Sy. Gowthamraj, shows the students of a government school being herded away from school, in a lorry, by goons affiliated to a political party. When a male teacher runs out and questions them, he's slapped. The camera rises to show us the name-board outside the school. The paint has faded. It's a metaphor. Soon, other visuals pile up. People use the school yard to dump trash. The students are unruly. The teachers are more interested in watching YouTube videos during class. It's this scenario that Geetha Rani (Jyotika) walks into, with a determined look that says, "I have seen To Sir, With Love, Dangerous Minds, Nammavar, Saattai… and I know how to fix things."
The surprise of the film—in theory—is that it treats Geetha like an action hero from a masala movie. She's strong, and not just mentally. She is described as mahaan and shaktishaali. She gets not just a scene with a slo-mo walk, but also an action stretch where she tackles thugs who brandish the kind of weapons you'd find in the Madurai movies. She even gets punchlines. An MLA tells her: "Idhu en ooru." She snarls back, "Idhu en school-u." I was reminded of NGK, which showed (or at least, tried to show) that our political system is so corrupt that mere good intentions cannot clean it up. You need to think like these politicians in order to outthink them. Raatchasi isn't as drastic, but there is the sense that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Or delivering a few thousand lectures.
That's the film's undoing. The dialogues sound less like conversation and more like the centre pages of The Hindu. The screenplay keeps finding things to sermonise about, from caste wars to corruption. Sample: "Teachers avanga velaiya sariya senja police-karanga velai kammi aagum." I could go on, but I will spare you. The teachers and students fall in line very quickly. It's inevitable. Anything, I suppose to avoid another lecture from Lady Samuthirakani… sorry, Geetha Rani, who is so superhuman that every conflict is resolved in approximately 0.0254 seconds. We never worry that there may be a problem that's insurmountable. The "villain", a private-school owner played by Hareesh Peradi, keeps threatening to do something. By the end of the film, he's still threatening.
In films like To Sir, With Love, the conflict comes from the friction between teacher and students. And because that's absent in Raatchasi, the director keeps trying to pad up the running time with subplots involving characters we barely know or care about (Geetha's father, or a senior teacher played by Poornima Bhagyaraj, who comes with a "twist" that makes little difference to the movie). Even something as sensational as Geetha's arrest ends in a whimper. It's as if they just stopped trying and, like us, wanted the damn thing to just be over with. A "message movie" like Pariyerum Perumal is effective because its issues seep into the pores of its characters and the milieu. We suffer with the protagonist, whose plight leaves us in knots. Had Geetha Rani been the lead there, she would have turned to the camera and said "Casteism is bad," and people would have lowered their heads in shame (like they do here), and the film would have ended in five minutes.
When will our directors learn that good intentions cannot make a good movie? Or that relentless music (Sean Roldan is the composer) isn't enough to make us "feel" if there's no emotional connect with the characters? The one time I felt something was when we learn about poorly performing students who had been kicked out so that the school's performance isn't affected. Many of these students have ended up as daily-wage labourers, and when they are "rescued" from this fate, I wanted to cheer. You see what can happen without a solid education. You see why a film that talks about these things is important. But we mostly see these students as beneficiaries of Geetha Rani's policies. They are never allowed to blossom into flesh-and-blood people. They exist simply so that the protagonist can notch up another win.
There's an adorable kid who develops a crush on Geetha. I would have gladly paid to see a film that did nothing more than show his attempts to win over a teacher old enough to be his mother. But like everything else in the movie, he comes and goes. It's great that Jyotika is cherry-picking projects that indulge in a fair bit of "heroine worship". If our older, married male stars can get away with it, then why not our older, married female stars? If Suriya can get action scenes where the female interest looks on admiringly, why not Jyotika? But she really needs better scripts. And try as she might, there's still a glass ceiling. She gets no romantic interest (To Ma'am, No Love). And by the end, it's almost like the character is resigned to a celibate life. Meanwhile, a thousand discussions have been launched around whether NGK really slept around. Now, there's a social inequality that deserves a few thousand lectures.