The defining moment of every celluloid love story is the stretch where the lead couple meet. Or so they say.
But watch out; if its an Indian movie featuring a star with a huge fan following among the masses, the tropes and templates are pretty much simple. No breaking the head for scriptwriters here. The following are fitted in using various permutations and combinations.
1. The dashing lady develops a liking for the loafer with a golden heart, while he is busy stalking her on the street and passing lewd comments about her to his friends.
2. She ogles over his manliness and decides her partner for life while he is giving her some life-lessons on how it is so ‘un-girly‘ to have brains of her own.
3. She falls head over heals in love with his raw energy while he instructs her on the supposed ‘divinity’ of womanhood, only to romance her wearing a (decent!) bikini the next sequence.
4. She gets to look pretty and coy while letting the coffee mug slip when the guy’s fingers touches hers, in an expression of utmost femininity.
5. She is humiliated repeatedly (physically and mentally) until she realizes that the lead man is indeed her savior (of life and chastity), and she is a ‘nothing’ without him
This defining moment happens in Yennai Arindhaal too. Only that the lead star is a cop on a particularly dangerous mission, now under the garb of an auto driver. And the leading lady is pregnant,(make no mistake) on the lookout for a ride to the hospital. Sparks don’t fly. Flowers don’t fall. Eyes don’t meet. The man doesn’t gawk. The lady doesn’t gape. Love is not in the air. The tension of an impending shoot-out is all that is looming large. Its, in fact, the most ‘unromantic’ of meets. The man decides to help the girl bring a bundle-of-joy into the world, before taking a life. The destinies of two adorable people have been irreversibly intertwined by the workings of fate. Sathyadev and Hemanika have met. Gautham Vasudev Menon had started weaving his familiar magic! And I had started to smile.
I had, in fact, given Gautham quite some leeway, while setting out to watch Yennai Arindhaal. Come on, the talented guy has been through a rough patch for quite some years now, with leading stars opting out and back to back projects being shelved. To top it all, his last venture in familiar territory earned him more brickbats than critical acclaim. And now, a re-entry film with a star who had been slowly but steadily moving towards commercial pastures, focusing on satisfying his core fan-base. So honestly, I stepped into the theater quite wary of the implications of having a protagonist trying in vain to escape an image trap, go behind hysterical criminals. Well, having seen quite some gifted makers succumb under pressure and considering our financiers’ fetish for monotony in the name of commercial must-haves, I believe my skepticism was valid.
But forty minutes into the movie, and having started to know Sathyadev, I get this beauty of a moment, I was describing earlier. And that was the moment, that singular moment, when all my faith in my once ‘favorite’ maker was restored. When he had every imaginable excuse in the cinematic planet to play to the gallery, here we have, Gautham Vasudev Menon, bringing to screen yet another time, a married, pregnant and multi-dimensional female lead; this time for a younger star with a younger fan base. While this kind of bold characterization frankly didn’t serve a loftier purpose in the larger scheme of things in Vettaiyadu Vilaiyaadu, the mere presence of Aradhana’s character in a film of that magnitude spoke of Gautham’s valiance. This time in Yennai Arindhaal, he goes a step further and incorporates deeper and more matured repercussions to the lead couple’s romance. The reticent courtship gradually blooming between Satyadev and Hemanika over six long years make for some of the finest moments of Yennai Arindhaal.
Yes, many of the film’s high points are not radically different and in fact have been touched upon by Gautham himself in his earlier films. So Yennai Arindhaal despite essentially being a rearrangement of his pet themes and tropes, impresses with subtle variations engaging enough to sustain the audience’s interests. Coming back to Hemanika’s characterization, Gautham felt the compulsion to portray Raghavan as a widower in VV to write the sizzling chemistry between him and the divorced Aaradhana. In Yennai Arindhal, he shatters all shackles of ‘mass heroism’ as the single and eligible Sathyadev falls in love with Hemanika. The beauty of this portrayal lies in the nonchalance with which Hemanika’s past is brushed aside with neither blatant nor subtle references. It doesn’t matter. Nobody is bothered. Neither the maker nor Sathadev. When Hemanika thanks Sathyadev for being the reason her daughter Isha entered this world, in their second meeting in the family court premises two years later, we smile along with Sathya. We can look inside the tough-on-the-outside cop’s heart now. This lady is making him feel special and happy. When Sathyadev gets close to Isha every passing year, we could literally feel the bond of a life time taking shape. When Hemanika watches them from a distance with a smile and a tear down her cheek, we get a feel of the complexity of her emotions, that freaking moment.
In a stretch that gave me moist eyes and goosebumps, Sathyadev proposes to a hesitant Hemanika, No. Sathyadev is not portrayed as the martyr or the savior. No. Hemanika doesn’t fall at his feet and cry. The emphasis is not on the romantic melodrama, at least for the majority of the time, but instead shifts between more pressing issues of social pragmatism and parenthood. How will Isha adjust to their living under a single roof? What if they have kids together? Will Isha feel side-lined? How about five years later? When Sathyadev tells Hemanika his long-term plans, quoting the moment he got Isha from her in the court when he knew that Isha was his own, and they don’t need any more kids, we could sense the sincerity in his voice. We feverishly chuckle amid-st the drama when Sathyadev quips that their last decision might necessitate some extra trips to the pharmacy. And at this moment, Sathyadev unleashes his chef-d’-oevre move, goes searching for the elders of the home, brings Isha and asks for her permission. You must have seen that look on Hemanika’s face. Bliss doesn’t come that easy. And so does heart-warming writing!
Is there another film-maker of our generation, who could deal with femininity, pain and love with so much sensitivity and poise, that we are overwhelmed watching them unfold, knowing very well that it brings nothing new to the table. Point in case, the characterization of the other female lead, Thenmozhi, who develops a liking for Sathyadev. Interestingly, the film opens with a possible wedding alliance for Thenmozhi happening with a meet-up of both the families. Thenmozhi, on the slightest hint that she is being objectified, when asked to sing, gives back tastefully by crooning “Oodha color ribbon, Unaku yaaru appan”, referring to the groom and his family. Well played, Gautham! What follows is a fateful flight journey, when she gets to meet Sathyadev. Well, for that matter, when Sathyadev is first introduced, Thenmozhi is puking to glory into her vomit bag. So much for hero-worship! The way Thenmozhi, early on, asks for a coffee date to let them decide on their compatibility, the segments where she is unable to hide her obvious awe for the special bond Sathya and Isha share, and finally the closing image where Sathyadev reminds her of the pending date are all testimonies to why Gautham is not just another maker who takes love films.
More delightful moments happen when Sathyadev and Isha embark on that decisive journey of self-realization, introspection and mutual learning. Sathyadev interestingly calls it an ode to being a good son and a better father. And this is where Sathya’s character sketch gets a riveting perspective and differentiates him from his predecessors. Among Gautham’s cop protagonists, Anbu Selvan is the workaholic of the lot, the most romantically challenged, quite family-phobic, intense, brooding, shy and introverted. Raghavan on the other hand brims with attitude, confidence, wit and a quirky passion towards work and love. Sathyadev, in contrast, is more of a family man longing for company, love and parenthood than a stone-hearted cop, so much so that he is ready to sacrifice his job for the sake of his child. He fears for his life, and comes out of a deadly brawl accepting defeat, his body and pride wounded, to live another day for his kid. And there I saw how the pen of Gautham is mightier than the sword – or the axe – or the bag with pennies – or whatever kind of heroic violence which is in vogue with whichever stunt master currently in fashion. Sathyadev and Isha discovering each other in the background of the ‘Unakenna Venum’ track beautifully conceptualized and executed by Gautham and Harris, is further proof of what the actor inside the star is capable of, if let free to soar.
Beneath all these emotions, Yennai Arindhaal, is at heart, the head-on duel between a police officer Sathyadev and a gangster Victor, which again is served up typical Gautham style. Despite a weak central conflict unlike his earlier ventures, Gautham impresses with a lot of smaller often overlooked aspects. Special mention to the way the character of Sathyadev is introduced, with the ‘Oru Melisaana Kodu’ dialogue in the background and the cop scene from Moondru Mugam on TV with Rajni on one side and the villain on the other. The scene then cuts to show Sathyadev behind bars implying his cross-over. Brilliant! The Yennai Arindhaal theme song that immediately follows the reveal, stylishly packed with montages of high-octane cop drama, make these portions of the movie move at a more brisk pace after quite a leisurely start.
Sathyadev’s towering pride over his profession and amour propre is exemplified to perfection in a single sequence where he puts the character played by Ashish Vidyarthi in his place. The dialogues here referring to Ashish as ‘collateral damage’ are a riot. The organ racket abductions happening in the second half seem a tad bit familiar, but are kept engaging by some awesome visuals by Dan MacArthur, sensible adrenalin pumping choreography by Silva and ‘trademark’ lively voice-overs.. Even within the action segments, Gautham infuses elements of friendship, betrayal and revenge. And this is where, the character of Victor, the principle antagonist, stands out. Victor has his own personal life and fights for the ideals he believes in. He is brutal, dangerous and over-sensitive. And the film’s finest ‘conflict’ sequence – we may call it the Menon moment – is a telephonic confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, where both of them are in their elements. And then the ‘Melisaana Kodu’ appears – while the screen splits into two, with a thin line separating the two men, and on each split screen, moments that changed the courses of their lives flash simultaneously. Respect.
Ajith Kumar is terrific as the smart, suave and lovable Sathyadev and its a joy to see him on-screen in his various make-overs. It takes enormous courage and lots of trust to submit oneself to an able maker like this, and Ajith has shown the path again after Mankatha. In fact, Gautham is one film-maker who writes many a conflict positioning himself as the protagonist, and Ajith seems to be the best to carry that image. From a ruthless gangster to a lovable man, from a young cop to an aging parent, Ajith shoulders the film literally and excels frame after frame. As the brave yet insecure Sathyadev, he looks defeated at times, cries his heart out, admits his weaknesses, battles his guilt, beats himself for his mistakes and gets wounded innumerable times in his journey. But then, he comes out, fighting. A round of applause, Ajith, for letting YA be a director’s film. Trisha and Anushka perform effortlessly in roles which don’t require much of them, but Arun Vijay as Victor, is a scream in a character that stands the risk of getting easily caricatured. With quite a range of expressions up his sleeve, he uses every opportunity he gets to steal the limelight off a star with unimaginable screen presence like Ajith. Harris Jeyaraj strikes gold in the ‘theme’ background score and is largely functional otherwise. In a film that boldly does away with an introduction number for its star, its only fair that the ‘Adhaar Adhaar’ number serving no real purpose, is excused.
Now, I could argue that Yennai Arindhaal is less a brilliant cop drama than an emotional mood piece, a collage of ‘Menon-isms’ to arrive after a gap. The hot-headed swearing, loud-mouthed villain plotting revenge, beautiful and bold female characters who double up as the Achille’s heal for both protagonists and antagonists alike, lead men who are extra-nice to women, the inspirational father figure, true passion for work, the battle of the heart and the brain, the pain of a personal loss, the insecurities of a seemingly invincible man, never-ending narrations, and the list goes on. But why not? I ask. If the content is kept entertaining and engaging as a mood piece, why can’t it be more of it than a superbly positioned gritty criminal conflict? Yes, the positives are sometimes the negatives. Yes, it gives the ‘been there. seen that‘ feel at times. But then, why not, when there is a chance to be in the seats of similarly refreshing and well-written characters again? Why not, when there is an opportunity now to see their emotions in a different angle. Everything after all, is perspective.
Here is a filmmaker who signed up a hot star with a crazy fan following, for his re-entry film, and then chose to believe in himself and his craft rather than the star power of his actor. Here is a filmmaker who believed that all human emotions can be translated visually irrespective of the conflict and at the end of the day, those are the moments that really matter. Here is a filmmaker who chose to give Ajith fans a film they could be proud of, rather than something they would want to see, celebrate and forget. Here is a filmmaker who refused to underestimate the tastes and sensibilities of the neutral audience. Yennai Arindhaal is proof again of what that filmmaker is capable of.
So, Yennai Arindhaal with its tonal and length issues might not be perfect nor is Gautham’s best, and might even seem repetitive at times, but let me tell you that it’s real hard not to come away impressed by its overall appeal. Gautham’s and his script consultants’ (Sridhar Raghavan and Thiagarajan Kumararaja) obvious influences extend to the length of individual stretches – and, in turn, to the entirety of the film. It goes on and on – and yet, you’re truly amazed with what could have been just another saga of good vs evil, just another cop thriller about cops vs hooligans, just another tale of matured love, just another story of parental bonding, just another fictional take on friendship and betrayal. Yennai Arindhaal is all of the above and yet none of the above in perfection. It’s neither possible nor necessary to pin down on whether this is brilliant film-making, but without doubt this is interesting and responsible film-making.