Director: A.L. Vijay
Cast: Jayam Ravi, Sayyeshaa Saigal, Thambi Ramaiah
In the opening scene of Vanamagan (Son of the Forest), an Andamanese tribal named Jara (Jayam Ravi) is captured. He speaks to a fellow-captive in a language specially created for the film, but you wonder why they bothered. Couldn’t they have just dug into the vast repertoire of the music director, Harris Jayaraj (this is his 50th outing), whose specialty is phonetic invention? Go to a remote corner of the world and say, “Hasili fisili, nani koni, danga maari, askku laska,” and the indigenous people would likely reply, “And a good day to you too!” Harris’s special contribution to this film’s background score is a vigorous chant that goes, “Hey… zulu… zambala gimbala go.” No, that’s your mother!
Is this chant offensive, in the sense that it puts quotation marks around a tribal civilisation? Then what would you say about the heroine’s (Kavya, played by Sayyeshaa) attempts to “tame” Jara using show-dog training tactics? But no! At least in the early portions, director A.L. Vijay is after nothing more than an amiably silly, kid-friendly evening at the movies. The real problem with Vanamagan is that it’s not kid-friendly enough. After a point, it begins to bemoan what we are doing to our planet in the name of development. It’s hard to take eco messages seriously in a movie where the hero and heroine wear matching leaf dresses and dance.
There are templates for this kind of movie, most notably the Tarzan adventures and George of the Jungle. But Jara isn’t brought up by apes, and the most you could say is that Vanamagan mimics the latter film’s plot point of an accident causing the “wild man” to be air-lifted to the city, and the ensuing fish-out-of-water antics. Vanamagan, in fact, is awfully close to the recently released Kadamban, right down to the honey-gathering and cliff-jumping and an animal returning to help the man who saved its life.
And, if like me, you like to play the game called All Films Lead Back To Kamal, there’s a strong Guna hangover. A parentless millionairess whose only close contact is a money-grubbing manager (no spoiler there; for one he’s played by Prakash Raj, and two, he asks her to sign a document very early on, which she does without reading it) discovers that an innocent man who appears “uncivilised” is actually more “human” than those around her. I’m not saying Vanamagan is a copy. It’s just that the sheer variety of themes in the Kamal Haasan oeuvre almost always results in echoes.
I enjoy watching how our filmmakers envision the rich. When Kavya wakes up, she inspects the cup of coffee in a trembling help’s hand. There’s a speck on the cup. She flings it so hard that it falls on a vase and cracks it. They aren’t kidding when they call caffeine a strong stimulant. Then, she slips into the bathtub. Rose petals are strewn around. And yet, extreme privation lurks around the corner. Her visa application for a trip to Bora Bora is rejected. Life can be such a bitch.
Vanamagan gradually becomes terribly serious, and a comic adventure turns into a tiresomely earnest drama
Kavya fumes, “I’m going to buy the island.” I’m guessing Sayyeshaa wrote this line herself, hoping the production would shift to the South Pacific as Kavya negotiates atoll stamp duties and brokerage fees. Alas, Prakash Raj suggests a less expensive option: the Andamans. That’s where Kavya runs into Jara (literally) and decides to bring him back with her. As long as Jara refuses to use doors (he likes to crash through walls), Vanamagan is okay-if-you-happen-to-find-yourself-in-the-theatre. Small caveat: You’ll have to ignore the strange phenomenon of characters being introduced, only to vanish soon, like Kavya’s friends, or an uncle (Thalaivasal Vijay). My theory is that they took a look at the script pages for the second half and caught the first flight out to Bora Bora.
For Vanamagan gradually becomes terribly serious, and a comic adventure turns into a tiresomely earnest drama. Jayam Ravi, who hardly has any lines, doesn’t try to overcompensate with expressions — this is the most Zen tribal you’ve met. The film is equally Zen, in that it hardly provokes a reaction. When tribals are massacred, we don’t weep. When a mountaintop rescue is underway, we don’t thrill. I kept wondering why Kavya experiences no discomfort in the jungle. She feels hungry, that’s about it. Don’t the long treks leave her tired? Doesn’t the encounter with a tiger make her recall her earlier life, filled with vases and rose petals? She marches on, her forest-proof lipstick a symbol of her refusal to fade. Match that, L’Oréal.
Watch the trailer here: