The word “toxic” in the headline, dear reader, isn’t my grandstanding judgment. It is Varisu’s only moment of self-awareness, the words written by Vivek (dialogues) uttered by the film’s hero, Vijay himself. It’s also the off-handed acceptance of the message that Varisu is going for: Even if toxic, to the point of being murderous, families are sacrosanct.
As you would surely have guessed by now, Varisu is the story of a family. At its head is the controlling and competition-obsessed father, Rajendran (Sarathkumar), who also runs a business conglomerate. His wife, Sudha (Jayasudha), is a long-suffering mother and family peacekeeper. She dresses in gorgeous saris, serves everyone food, laments about the greatness of a family and worries endlessly.
Their elder son, Jay (Meka Srikanth), is an incompetent businessman, philanderer and a sore loser. His wife (Sangeetha) is a long-suffering loner with a perpetual long face. Their 16-year-old daughter is a rebellious teenager, who smokes in the garden and leaves butts behind that apparently no one sees or even smells — perhaps the perils of living in a house that large!
The middle son, Ajay (Shaam), is an incompetent businessman in debt, easily falling into the hands of evil corporate forces. His wife (Samyuktha)...well, by now, you know the drill. Forget the Bechdel test, she is such an integral part of this film’s family that she has not a single dialogue of consequence.
All that is left is for the prodigal son, Vijay (played by Vijay), to return and put this broken family in order — and that’s what he does. No spoilers there, no?
The good thing about Vamshi Paidipally’s Varisu is that there is no pretense of doing anything new, unique or imaginative. It is the ten-a-penny template film that Tamil cinema has been grinding for years and years. In typical Telugu cinema fashion, there are dozens of characters always crowding the scene. Prakash Raj as a meek villain, Ganesh Venkatraman as a loserly financier, Prabhu as the endearing family doctor, Yogi Babu as the ‘kitchen uncle,’ once a Rajinikanth villain Suman as some sort of business collaborator, Sriman, VTV Ganesh, Sathish, and even SJ Suryah in a cameo, for good measure.
So, there is always something going on. The template has its beats and there is something to give us a booster shot every time the predictability flu is about to hit. For instance, every time we hit a painful vacuum created by this silly family’s pointless antics, Varisu breaks into song and dance. Oh, don’t blame me for forgetting to mention Rashmika Mandanna until we got to the song-and-dance drill — that’s entirely on the writers, Paidipally, Hari, Ashishor Solomon and Vivek. Rashmika, for her part, dances her heart out. In fact, at various points, she has a more arresting screen presence than Vijay himself.
There are plenty of fight scenes, too, choreographed in typical uninventive fashion — you know, flying goons, breaking necks, kicking on the chest, carrying a half-dead man over the shoulder kinda things. Thaman, with his songs and background score, gives us great nostalgia, whether it’s deliberate or not, I couldn’t tell.
As for the comedy, though, the joke is on us. Vijay blackmails board members of a public limited company with inane personal stuff in response to which they vote for him as chairman; some of them even dance at the board meeting (somewhat à la that Vaikuntapuram film). Vijay’s “startup” — some kind of undefined social enterprise, I gathered because he keeps talking about serving those with hunger or some such — is a unicorn, but we never see him do any work on it except scroll through some India maps. Vivek’s dialogues often feel like a listicle of things that actor Vijay — or his colleagues — have said in his previous films, often so forcefully inserted that it bleeds a little. If you’re curious, yes, there is a fat-shaming joke about Yogi Babu too.
For most of the first half, the predictability of these beats and the setup-punchline-slomo structure of these scenes make us restless to just get on with it. I found myself wondering which of these punchlines would give me the much-awaited interval block. It felt like it took too long. In the second half, Vamshi Paidipally makes up for this somewhat. He ups the mass quotient, the obstacles shatter, and the sly remarks keep coming. While the intent is probably fan service, it’s unfair to classify this as exclusively for the fandom. If you can catch the references (I couldn’t, at least not all) and enjoy the ridiculousness (I most certainly could), Varisu is certainly tolerable.
That doesn’t discount its violently flattened-out view of the family structure. By its own admission — a moral-of-the-story type voice-over summary in the end — Varisu is a message padam. A message that prioritises the toxic family collective over progressive individual values. One that reduces its women to just wives and mothers destined to remain silent spectators and sufferers. Varisu celebrates a woman’s stoic acceptance of the kitchen as her place. It writes off a woman’s entire life of loneliness, lack of emotional fulfillment and blatant rejection by her husband with a one-word apology. It refuses to even consider a woman’s abject lack of agency in something as basic as where she lives — boxed around by her husband’s trigger happiness and father-in-law’s control of the finances — a legitimate problem. It fills its boardrooms with silly men.
In the end, the message is clear: Every family is upheld by the silencing and erasure of its women. Behind every victorious Varisu lies a million women's dead dreams and happiness.