Director: Venky Atluri
Cast: Dhanush, Samyuktha Menon, Samuthirakani, Aadukalam Naren, Tanikella Bharani, Sai Kumar
The idea of the teacher as a saviour has been a part of our movies for so long that it has become easy to predict the ebbs and flows of the subgenre. Be it a film like Saattai (2012), the more recent Master (2021), or Nammavar (1994) which inspired the Lokesh film, it’s as though it is only a matter of time before we get another montage of a campus cleanup featuring annoyingly gleeful students. Like how a screenwriter needs to work extra hard to avoid the trap of predictability in a sports drama, the “back to school” film too deserves a similar amount of innovation to create freshness.
In this regard, you find Venky Atluri’s script to be partly rewarding and a whole lot frustrating. To begin with, the film is closer in spirit to Saattai (the decision to cast Samuthirakani as the villain here is a nice touch) or a Malayalam film like Manikyakkallu (2011). This isn’t only because all three films begin with an idealist having to take charge of a dying government school. These films also use individual characters, who are usually students, to address wider issues such as consumerism, caste and bad parenting, besides underscoring the obvious within the education system.
While Vaathi makes an effort to address all of these with varying degrees of success, it is the way it goes deeper into the business of education that gives it a bit of an edge. The main antagonist here (played by Samuthirakani) is a man who is not just the pioneer of private education in Tamil Nadu but he is also Balamurugan’s (Dhanush) employer. Even the conflict that sets the ball rolling is the fear of a new law that would create a ceiling on how much private schools can charge as fees.
Instead of fighting the new law, the antagonist chooses to fight the perception that good education should be free and accessible. The decision to assign Balamurugan to a government school too does not arise from the hope that he would improve it. It’s quite the opposite with his qualification being a junior teacher with no teaching experience. So when he leaves his hometown to take up his new duty as the mathematics teacher in a remote school located on the TN-Andra Pradesh border, we’re expecting the setting to add new flavours to tired tropes. We are also hoping for this change in the scenario to throw up issues that haven’t yet been covered in similar films.
Primarily, this new location only contributes to making the film’s bi-lingual credential a little more believable. Unlike the recently released Michael, in Vaathi we’re willing to overlook lips sync issues and the strange landscape because the place itself is both in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It doesn’t really explore either culture but at least it gives its conflict a universality because education is the same everywhere.
But it is the manner in which we arrive at foreseeable plot points that makes it hard to keep engaging with Vaathi. The school’s biology teacher (Samyuktha) falls for Balamurugan exactly at the moment in which he sorts out the school’s caste issue. The montages, including the part where weak students suddenly become experts, borrow images from films we’ve seen before. The lack of stronger characters that help Bala in his mission makes the film feel utterly generic, even when major events are taking place.
Of these, a particularly tiring stretch involves Bala walking back after he’s been attacked by local goons. It is a highly melodramatic sequence that is meant to show the pain Bala goes through in his efforts to keep teaching. But when the scene doubles up to show the impact he’s having on his students, we get a lofty stretch in which his weakest student comes to his aid to ensure his path becomes a little easier. It’s a scene written with sympathy as the only motive, yet it only repeats the same point we’ve already come to understand by then.
It is when the film goes a little easier on itself that we get portions where it is most inventive. Instead of heavy drama, there’s a lightness when it almost transforms into a meta-film about the power of cinema to bring change. In this, not only does it speak about the cinema hall becoming a temple of learning, but it also creates the space for Bala to keep appearing in different costumes (including that of Subramania Bharathi) without the effect feeling too contrived.
This stretch where education itself needs to be smuggled in, like contraband, hits you harder about the point the film is trying to make. But these remain short passages of brilliance in a film that’s almost exactly what you had predicted from the trailer. A major reveal featuring an IAS officer was hardly the surprise it was meant to be and even the climax, with Bala requesting his students to use an unfair advantage, goes against everything the film was speaking about. Without a lot to say that’s new and without a new way of saying it, Vaathi is just another well-intentioned message movie that’s meant to make its hero look good.