BR Review: Despite A Generic Narrative, Rocky Signals The Arrival Of A Genuine Cinematic Voice

Though the film stays at an arm's length, we watch it with admiration and it echoes a real cinematic voice.
BR Review: Despite A Generic Narrative, Rocky Signals The Arrival Of A Genuine Cinematic Voice

Director: Arun Matheswaran
Cast: Bharathiraja, Vasanth Ravi, Raveena Ravi
Language: Tamil

Rocky is directed by Arun Matheswaran. It stars Vasanth Ravi and a simply terrific Bharathiraja. Whether in Aayutha Ezhuthu or Pandiya Naadu or Kurangu Bommai, the latter being one of my favourite recent performances of the director-turned-actor, he has always gone over and above the script. The camera loves Bharathiraja's face. He has those fantastic sand-papery base notes in his voice, and with age he has become a very affecting presence. 

In Rocky, Bharathiraja plays the role of Manimaran, a gangster. He doesn't have to shout and scream to prove that he's acting. Even when he's just sitting still, he conveys a certain something. There is a fantastic scene where he threatens his son. The scene is fantastic because obviously, the writing is fantastic, which is why the scene allows the actors to be fantastic. But Bharathiraja, as I said, goes over and above this writing. He kind of conveys his menace so casually, that you feel it in your bones. It's like discovering that your friendly neighbourhood grandfather is actually a serial killer.

The story of the film is about Manimaran's enmity with Rocky, played by Vasanth Ravi and the film's USP is gorgeously designed and utterly unapologetic violence. This is how ruthless and very angry, rageful people behave when they want to threaten or kill someone. 

Arun Matheswaran is very clear that he wants to make this particular kind of movie. What is this kind of movie? It's a very gory adult movie with no compromises for family audiences. Thank god, otherwise, we would have had to suffer through a series of those fights where the hero punches one guy and then he goes flying through the air and crash lands somewhere else. 

There is not much humour in Rocky but you know what the biggest joke of the film is? It is dedicated to Mahendran and Balu Mahendra, two of the gentlest filmmakers you can find. 

The one major issue that I had with Rocky is that it needed more narrative glue to hold all this violence together. Because after a point, the violence becomes repetitive and it begins to look like action scenes or violence for the sake of action scenes and violence. 

The story and the characters are generic, perhaps intentionally so. It's no sin to have a premise that goes as simple as this. You killed someone from my family and now I'm going to take revenge. That's no problem at all. And yes, some of the lines do give us what the narrative would have traditionally done. They give us a hint of the inner life or the backstory of the character. For example, this wonderful dialogue that the Bharathiraja character delivers about the birth of his son. But you feel that you need a little more. For instance, I would have liked to know a little more about the kind of business that Rocky and Manimaran are in. There's a Sri Lankan angle that could have been better fleshed out. Right now, it looks like an afterthought, and it is delivered like an exposition dump by Rohini, who plays Rocky's mother. 

I would have liked a few more shades to the Rocky character. Yes, they do try to soften him up a bit. Thankfully, there is no love angle. But we see the softening in the way he treats a little girl who comes suddenly into his life or in the way he treats his father's watch. But his one-off touches don't make us root for the man's revenge. In fact, I felt at times that it might have been better if he had not been softened at all. That is if he had just remained a brute force, a brute animal force.

Vasanth Ravi gives an impressively soul-dead performance that says, "I don't have anything to lose anymore." Every time you look at his face, that's the impression that you get. And I wish that had been his character — a volatile young animal in opposition with Bharathiraja's weaker old animal; both of them trying to claw each other to death in a jungle of violence. 

The other thing about the movie is that it carries a lot of existential philosophy, which it sometimes cannot sustain. Early on, for instance, we hear the story about an eagle that can increase its longevity by learning how to bear the pain. But finally, when we see the eagle and what it represents, we feel that the story was much more philosophical in weight, whereas now what's here is just an action scene. 

Despite these flaws, Rocky is a very worthwhile film. Arun Matheswaran has a fantastic eye for composition and he uses the big screen beautifully. There is an individual stamp in every aspect of the movie. It is there in Shreyaas Krishna's cinematography, Nagooran's editing, T Ramu's amazing artwork and especially in Darbuka Siva's score. It ranges from mildly tangy, spaghetti western kind of guitars, all the way to an action scene which is scored with a Mridangam and a Tambura. 

Except in the action scenes, there are no fast edits. Arun Matheswaran holds his shots for a long time. Sometimes a really, really long time. Sometimes even when he's just focusing on a face, it's held maybe two or three seconds longer than someone else would hold, he doesn't cut away easily. I'll give you one example, there's a super long take that works wonderfully. 

It's a scene where Rocky meets a sister played by Raveena Ravi. And because it plays out in real-time, we get a sense of his hesitation in going to her or the girl's hesitation in going to him. We get the sense of a very complicated sibling relationship playing out in real-time. It's one big scene together, and it works because it's not just there in the bigness of the shot taking but also in the bigness of the emotions of the scene. The locations and the way they've been used are simply fantastic. Whether it's the peeling paint on the walls or the sepia tone on the windows that gives a certain kind of mood to the frames. Or whether it's really bright blue and neon colours in the corridor, sometimes at the end, sometimes colouring the corridor entirely, or whether it's even this wall clock with its constant tick-tock sound during a scene. Everything has been designed to a micro degree to what I would like to call an almost Wes Andersonian degree.

Speaking of clocks, time is a major character in the movie. Not just in some of the dialogues or the poetry, but also in the scene of a woman curled up in a big clock that looks like a sundial. 

When the movie started, I was sitting in a kind of back row. But very soon, I kind of moved in front because I wanted to get as much of the screen as possible within my eye view. Because visually, the film is fantastic. The director uses frames within frames. He sometimes blacks out an entire half of the screen. He keeps varying the source of light because sometimes it's a torchlight, sometimes it's the car headlights. And most impressive of all is every time he steps out of the indoors and into the outdoors, there's this sense of the vastness of sky or sea, and the characters are just in the bottom quarter of the frame. And it's as if they are very minuscule in the larger scheme of things. 

It's lovely to see the big screen being used like an actual screen and not just like a TV set, like most directors use. Because even when Rocky is released from prison early on, there is a scene where he just walks and walks and walks. And he reaches the end of the screen and you see the prison sign and the jailer, the guard outside the prison there, he's standing at one end of the screen. And at the other end of the screen, we see Rocky, they're still part of the same frame but now we see the distance between them and also the distance between them and the space above. This becomes a constant motif because every time Arun Matheswaran steps from the inside to the outside he lets the sky or the sea dominate the frame. The characters are in the bottom quarter of the frame, as if they are very miniscule in the larger scheme of things. 

The narrative does nothing very inventive in the sense that it uses a standard going back and forth and time kind of thing. But it is enlivened by quirky things like chapter titles. These chapter titles are very interesting. There's also a lot of interesting philosophy. I mentioned earlier that some of it doesn't sit well. But when it does sit well, it's beautiful. For example, when we hear poetry or see something written on the wall, almost reflect as a companion piece to what is happening in the actual scene. In other words, what's written on the wall actually becomes a kind of commentary on the scene. Yes, some of this comes off as indulgent but I didn't mind it.

My main issue was that the film is that it stays at an arm's length. We watch it from a distance. We watch it with admiration, but we don't feel it. But have no doubt that this is a very real cinematic voice. Perhaps Rocky is best seen as a showreel of what Arun Matheswaran is capable of. This is a very, very promising debut.

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