Cast: Ajith, Nayanthara, Jagapathi Babu
The new Siva-Ajith Kumar collaboration, Viswasam (Loyalty), begins with the expected hero-introduction scene. The Collector of Theni district is trying to make peace between two parties. The name Thookudurai is mentioned and we cut to the outside, to glimpses of the man. A hand on the steering wheel of a car. A beard with more white than black. The back of the head as he stands up and salutes the gathering. The foot, as he strides into the site of the dispute. We then hear his voice. Now, we get the knuckles of a hand, that rests in reassurance on a man’s shoulder. And finally, the face. I keep thinking they’re going to run out of body parts to zoom into while building up to the face reveal — though the knuckles are a nice touch. (A future film might give us fingernails, or ooh, an earlobe.) I resigned myself to more of the same-old, same-old. I thought this would be yet another stretch of endless hero-glorification. I was pleasantly surprised.
Yes, Viswasam is about the hero, and he does get glorified — but not in the ways you expect. Amidst all the action mayhem, this is a Sultan-like drama about a husband who makes a mistake and atones in his own brawny way. After the scene with the Collector, we move to a festival, where Thookudurai’s grandmother tells him that she’s not fooled by his smiles. She knows that deep down, he’s sad. “Sirippum sandhoshamum vera,” she says, in one of the many nice bits of dialogue, the highlight being a terrific exchange between Thookudurai and his wife, Niranjana (Nayanthara, perfectly cast), in a hospital. But first, we have to wait out the meet-cute. She’s a doctor from Mumbai, and she falls for his ability to beat ten people up at the same time. Plus, she admits he’s dishy, a line that’s clearly mandatory in every one of this hero’s outings.
Let me first get through what doesn’t work. This romance is generic. I’m not asking to be convinced that a high-flying doctor and a rice-mill owner would settle down so easily, but a little more detail might have helped this plot point go down smoother. The “comedy” track with Vivek and Kovai Sarala is quite terrible, but it’s thankfully a very small portion. I wish goons in Mumbai didn’t always come with sickles and sledgehammers (and didn’t charge at their targets in full view of a thousand bystanders), but at least the showdowns are satisfactorily choreographed. I wish Imman’s numbers had been better (only Kannaana kanne registers), but they don’t get in the way of the narrative. Take Adichithooku. It’s a father celebrating after getting what he wanted. It may not be the best song, but at least it fits. It makes sense.
Even the minuses come with a “but still…” They’re not glaring missteps, and at first, I thought the reason I was responding so positively to the film was my low expectation. I mean, after Vivegam, the bar for a Siva-Ajith film is set pretty near ground level. But once Thookudurai and Niranjana get married, and then separated, the film becomes strong on its own terms. The reason he goes to Mumbai is iffy, but everything changes when their daughter — Swetha (Anikha) — becomes the target of killers. And the villain (Jagapathi Babu) isn’t just some random business rival who wants Niranjana’s multi-crore pharma company. There’s a father-daughter angle there, too — with the polarities reversed. If, on this side, Thookudurai is the one yearning for his daughter, the villain’s daughter, there, is the one who wants her father’s love.
Siva seems to have taken the memes and mean tweets personally. He doesn’t try for the wannabe-ness of Vivegam. The writing is clean, simple. He isn’t out to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but he fills his film with solid emotional beats. I loved the fight scene that also works as drama — in the midst of the punches, an invisible connection is established between parents and daughter. The scene where Thookudurai stops short of shaking hands with Niranjana (it’s her birthday), the scene where he meets the villain in a local restaurant, the scene where Swetha says she hates her father (she doesn’t know he’s right next to her) — they all work in small, satisfying ways. And Ajith helps hugely. He’s looser than he’s been in a long time. He isn’t spitting out lines through that trademark macho snarl. He happily plays the fool. It’s nice when a hero decides not to sell the heroism at an overt level. It saves the film from becoming more OTT than it already is.
It’s also nice when a hero takes a (relative) backseat in terms of his characterisation. This is a (relatively) vulnerable leading man. Thookudurai makes a mistake. Because of him, the infant Swetha got into a life-threatening situation. And now, he’s there to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistake again. He may have landed in Mumbai for other reasons, but now, it’s an opportunity to make amends. Niranjana, too, is nicely drawn. You can see why she’s so angry with Thookudurai. She gave up dreams of Stanford so she could have his child, and he’s endangered this very child. It would have been easy to make her a rich shrew who needs to be taught a lesson, but the film treats her with dignity. This isn’t Mannan. Thookudurai sees why she’s angry. He respects her reasons. Even when she insults him, it’s easy to interpret the moment as arising out of festering hurt rather than ego.
Best of all is the Swetha angle. Anikha played Ajith’s foster daughter in Yennai Arindhaal, and that relationship casts its warm shadow over this one — even without as much time together, we buy Swetha and Thookudurai as father and daughter. And she’s no snivelling kid who needs saving. Mercifully, she’s not asked to play “cute”, either. She has personality. (She’s as stubborn as her mother.) She has a goal. (She’s an athlete.) She has principles. (She sees a girl use steroids and decides to pursue the matter.) The film’s second half revolves around Swetha, and the climax is less about the hero vanquishing the villain than his daughter facing her fears. A lot of mainstream filmmaking is about finding new ways to tell the same old story. With Viswasam, Siva does more. He justifies his star’s faith in (and perseverance with) him.