Cast: Vishal, Prasanna, Andrea Jeremiah, Anu Emmanuel
The last time Mysskin made a movie with a big-name hero (Jiiva), we got the underwhelming Mugamoodi. Will the whelm-o-meter needle sink lower, now that our most idiosyncratic filmmaker has roped in a bigger-name hero (Vishal), who's also the producer? All doubts are dispelled in the hero-introduction scene, a longish one, where we don't even see his face. We just sense his presence, as he moves about, a body-camera rig strapped on him so that we see what he sees. It might be the best joke in Thupparivaalan (Detective), for the point of the narrative is that we don't see what he sees. His mind races so fast, we are always ten steps behind. In other words, this may be a star vehicle, but it's the director in the driver's seat. Phew!
Hence the scene featuring seppuku. Hence the (assumed) name of an investigating officer: Stanley Kubrick. The hero's name, meanwhile, is a throwback to classical literature: Kaniyan Poongundran. And from the world of pulp, we get more (assumed) names, derived from the writer Thamizhvanan and his famous detective-protagonist, Shankarlal. My favourite in joke was the cheeky cut from a painting (Vermeer's The Milkmaid) to a real-life action (a maidservant pouring milk). A ballerina painting by Degas is also referenced. I haven't figured out what it's about, but I'll bet there's a story there as well.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before Mysskin reached for Arthur Conan Doyle for what are his films, in essence, if not mysteries that involve a lot of detecting and end with big reveals?
What about this story? It's set in motion by a natural phenomenon. Or is it? Kaniyan, early on, complains that it's been three weeks since he had an interesting case, and now he gets more than he bargained for. There are mysterious deaths, including a body in a refrigerator (the casual reveal is a beauty). And who's the man tossed from the eighth floor of a building? Wait! What has all this got to do with the boy who wants to find the person who killed his pomeranian? This scene with the boy, who offers a fee of eight-hundred and change, is a lovely bit of character building — for earlier, Kaniyan has refused a case that would have earned him 50 lakhs. You can be a hero even without landing a punch.
Or a heroine. There is one, technically speaking: Mallika (Anu Emmanuel), who we first see in one of Mysskin's favourite haunts, the subway. (Don't look for blind beggars, though. But there is a blind mother.) There's no conventional love angle. Instead, we get the horrifying scene where Kaniyan shoves Mallika to the floor and hands her a broom (he's hired her to cook and clean), and she smiles. This seems to be the year for heroines in abusive relationships. But Kaniyan isn't a misogynist — he's more a misanthrope. Even with his best friend and partner, Mano (Prasanna), watch how he keeps shutting him up and screaming that the green tea (prepared by Mano; Freudians will have a field day with this relationship) tastes like rhinoceros urine. When Mallika prepares green tea and Kaniyan says it tastes like donkey piss, it practically feels like… love.
The Kaniyan-Mano relationship is, of course, modelled on Holmes and Watson. (Prasanna is fantastic. With minimal fuss, he creates a sidekick with actual personality.) It was perhaps only a matter of time before Mysskin reached for Arthur Conan Doyle (acknowledged at the beginning, and in a line that riffs on "You see, but you do not observe") — for what are his films, in essence, if not mysteries that involve a lot of detecting and end with big reveals? And the Mysskin hero we've come to know is a perfect fit with Holmes. I wondered how the director would use Vishal — interestingly, it turns out. Except for an uncharacteristic emotional scene that's rather painful to watch, Vishal is more a man in motion, his frame racing as fast as his character's thoughts. He really sells the action scenes. Translation: even bunny-hopping, with his legs tied, he doesn't look ridiculous.
But along with the characters, I wish Mysskin had taken a story, too, from Doyle. I was always invested in the mystery, but it doesn't have the snap of a really satisfying case — Mysskin's trademark creepy atmosphere is missing (perhaps a concession to the mainstream?), and the villain's motivations are really, well, underwhelming. A number of characters (Andrea Jeremiah, Vinay Rai, Simran, John Vijay, K Bhagyaraj) are functional rather than memorable. Compare the Radha Ravi-crawling-on-the-floor scene in Pisaasu to the Bhagyaraj-crawling-on-the-floor scene here — you'll see what I mean. Thupparivaalan takes after its leading man — it's all head. It could have used more heart.
But it does keep the head occupied. The film is a dense, Chinatown-like slow-burn investigation, and it's fun to see the jigsaw come together. And I mean, fun. There are a lot of laughs, some of them unintentional. (Black assassins? A furious 360-degree camera move around broken eggs?) But try keeping a straight face when a man turns into a vase, or when a lovemaking session is interrupted as Kaniyan seeks evidence, or when Santa gets kicked in the solar plexus. Even Kaniyan's fussy sense of style made me smile. He wears an Ascot cap (an update of Holmes's deerstalker?) and a cravat in the Chennai heat. Had Vishal been a few shades fairer, his face, after a bit of running around, would have been a study in scarlet.
Watch the trailer of Thupparivaalan here: