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Arya in a scene from Naan Kadavul.
Rarely do mainstream Tamil movies deal with certain sections of the society that pass through our lives with predictable regularity, and yet are shunned by most. And then you have director Bala, known for his distinctive perspectives, sharp, decisive screenplays and ability to blast the viewer out of his comfortable, cushioned existence. Fireworks are sure to happen when the two meet. So, does Vasan Visual Ventures' Naan Kadavul (I am God), Bala's latest magnum opus and hopefully his fourth blockbuster deliver the goods?
Well, it does, and it doesn't.
Considering the rousing beginning in Kasi, where you traverse steaming cremation grounds, the river Ganga and droves of sanyasis who throng the river banks in company of Arthur Wilson's excellent camera and Rudhran's (Arya) awe-inspiring introduction as he does seershasan pose, you settle down, expecting a marvelous poetry on celluloid canvas.
Some of your urges are satisfied when you're introduced to Rudhran's father and sister, a bedraggled duo that roams the streets of Kasi, searching for a son disowned 14 years ago, because of an astrologer's predictions. They enlist the aid of a local priest who, after raging at them for their thoughtlessness, finally helps them run the son down to earth -- an aghora sanyasi, trained by a teacher who declares him to be God.
From then on, the screenplay picks up speed as Rudhran travels down to Malaikkoyil in company of his repentant father, to meet his mother. He's not charmed by being accepted into the bosom of his family but that's not because he's angry with them; he's just learnt to cut off his mortal roots.
Your appetite is whetted further when you meet the ruthless and fearsome Thandavan, who wreaks havoc on hordes of hapless beggars, deforming them and holding them as permanent hostages caught in a cruel limbo. Every sort of beggar is here: the canny ones who can crack macabre jokes even when bleak poverty stares them in the face; giggling innocents who've known nothing but the clinking of coins; sympathetic transgenders who help them and young babies who are sacrificed just to rake in some cash. Then there's Murugan too, an unwilling broker who trades in beggars, but is too weak to do anything but drink and sob about his work (and here he echoes Pithamagan's Surya).
Thus enters Amsavalli (Pooja), a blind girl with a beautiful voice, dragged kicking and screaming from her clan (there's a little interlude of song-and-dance here in the local police station with 'Nayanthara,', 'MGR," 'Sivaji' and Rajini' performing for everyone's entertainment) to join Thandavan's motley group of beggars, and she's assigned to beg on Malaikkoyil.
And then you sit and wait for the explosion that's bound to happen when two members of such varied and explosive worlds meet. The meeting does happen but its nothing like you expected. Yes, there are situations that induce mild humour and provide certain unique insights but these moments are few and far in between.
This is certainly not the kind of movie that you can munch popcorn through. Bala attacks society's apathy and the depressing world of beggars with such acumen that you wince in pain. They're a fiercely strong group, and the cast he's chosen performs with such aplomb that you're truly moved.
Jeyamohan's dialogues (the celebrated author has already written a book called Ezavathu Ulagam based on the world of beggars), hit the mark, and their happy-go-lucky charm, particularly those of the babies and adolescents, is a touching picture.
Recognizing a unique setting, maestro Ilaiyaraja has gone to town with the background score even more than the songs themselves. It is this that adds some richness to the tale. Suresh Urs's editing is slick and neat; Super Subbarayan's stunts echo a lot of Pithamagan.
If anything, it's the world of the aghora sanyasi in Kasi that has been picturized superficially, considering the enormous build-up and Rudhran's intriguing body language. And here's where the director slips. Aside from mumbling mantras at strategic points, Rudhran doesn't do anything much. And there's nothing in the screenplay to indicate what exactly is running through his mind. Very little of the sharp-sightedness that's gone in showcasing the world of beggars has gone into the mental make-up of Rudhran, and it shows. Time and again you expect some insight into the actions of the chef protagonist, but there's very little.
The movie's certainly a landmark for both Arya and Pooja. Though their costumes and make-up go a long way towards impressing you, it's obvious that they've carried out their director's instructions, and nothing more. And that's when you're reminded of Surya's and Vikram's astounding screen-presence: you can't help imagining how those two consummate actors would have carried a similar role.
Having chosen a very rich and fertile subject, it looks like Bala decided to skim a little over the screenplay and the protagonists. Naan Kadavul is definitely worth a watch for its superb secondary characters, setting and music. Now, if only the screenplay had provided the missing punch.
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