Star vehicles in Tamil aren’t just films. They are a complex potpourri of elements with economic, political, social and cultural (mis)guidances of their own. This Pongal’s two releases can explain. Karthik Subbaraj’s Petta (hood) was pitched as a “tribute” to Rajinikanth, which the film stays true to. Siva’s Ajith-starrer Viswasam (loyalty) was pitched as literally that, the duo’s loyalty towards each other.
This largely shapes the expectations around the film. In fact, after being let down by the ‘tribute’ parts of Petta, I went to watch Viswasam worried that Siva and team (as credited in the film) might just take their loyalty too far. If Vivegam (2017) — their previous outing — was anything to go by, you’d understand my fears are perfectly reasonable.
Vivegam was gimmicky, relying on badly conceptualised international crime networks, superhuman Ajay Kumar (who is often called AK in the film; AK also stands for Ajith Kumar, the actor) and the relentless build up everyone gives him in the film. In contrast, Viswasam feels rooted. That is not to say that there isn’t any build up. Of course, there is. But, the build up for Thookudurai (a role that Ajith sleep walks in) seems grand and not bizarre as it was in Vivegam.
Viswasam begins as you’d expect: full of build up for Thookkudurai. Even his detractors stand up respectfully for him subconsciously. Nothing in the village happens without his consent. He’s their protector and father figure. He is powerful and loved. Yet, this benevolent overlord is underlined by a sense of melancholy. A festival he presides over brings the melancholy to boil and he begins his journey of redemption.
This takes us into a flashback 10 years earlier, where we are given another round of nauseating build up. By this time, I had nearly come to dismiss the film as yet another lazy Ajith aggrandisation endeavour. Until Nayantara arrives.
In Niranjana, Nayanthara has scored for herself a truly significant and meaningful heroine role, which is rare in hero-led mass films. When she’s introduced, she is shown as the only person to stand up to Thookkudurai. When she understands him and his prerogatives, she gives in but doesn’t cave. When he harasses her, she ignores him — the scene where an anaesthetised Thookkudurai says inappropriate things to her, she just pretends not to have heard it. She doesn’t engage with him or even react then, she returns to make him regret it later.
When she falls in love, she decisively proposes to him. Her pursuit of safety in choosing Thookkudurai is clear and decisive, even if debatable. She continues to run her business. She travels to Bombay to handle her business affairs, leaving their child to be cared for by her husband. She gets to say, ”modhalum mudivuma solren″ (I say this once and for all) twice in the film.
In fact, I am tempted to look at Niranjana as the hero of the film. She’s the one who moves the story forward. She is the cause of any significant action or turn in the film. She is the one with conviction and clarity
On the other hand, if we must see Thookudurai as the hero, Niranjana might just be the villain in the film — after all, the central conflict in the film is between him and her. Yet, as the woman who separates a Tamil cultured village hero from his beloved daughter and moves back to the big bad city, she is not once depicted as evil. In fact, there is never even a lecture about her being ‘wrong’. Or people sitting around and telling her about the importance of marriage. She leaves when she feels it’s unsafe for her child. She returns only when said child feels safer with him than without.
Her daughter adores and imitates her. She runs a business that is successful, grand and in her name. She has business adversaries she understands. She has disgruntled employees she is undisturbed by. She even has minions who will lie for her. The only thing the film doesn’t give her is the ability to beat up tens of men and rescue her daughter — though she does act like she has that too, repeatedly getting into a car and driving to the scene every time her daughter is in trouble.
In contrast, Thookkudurai is merely a bodyguard. He stays in the film for his muscle. Even for those of us who still hold on to the belief that one man can’t beat up tens of men, Thookudurai’s ability is understandable. He is an estranged father who would do anything to find a way back into the lives of his wife and daughter. When that opportunity presents itself, he will use the one thing he has to its end — muscle power.
The beauty of the film is in its awareness of this. Thookudurai tells Niranjana of his shortcomings without being apologetic about it. The film jokes about his inability to speak English, without mocking it. He puts himself in the same stature of a rich, educated and powerful enemy by dismissing all of that and making the fight simply about a father protecting his daughter. In that, the film doesn’t aspire to be more than it is. Loyalty and family is enough, it seems to tell us.
Yet, the film spends a significant amount of time focusing on Thookkudurai before his fatherhood, which is entirely unnecessary and incredibly boring. Multiple forgettable songs plague the first half. There is also a moral-of-the-story dialogue at the end of most scenes. Cringeworthy comedy insistently slows down the narrative. Several of these scenes are flat out unimaginative — there’s a scene about a sickle-fighting hero being scared of injections. You could erase Vivek from all the scenes he appears in and the film would miss nothing.
Even during the better parts of the film, Siva takes huge leaps of logic, as he is known to do.
Yet, as a story and in much if its telling, Viswasam is a thoughtful film. Its only failing is in its loyalty to Ajith, the star — the build up, the song-and-dance and the laughable comedy fail the otherwise interesting premise.