At the very outset let me start by confessing that Karthik Subbaraj makes it difficult for critics when it comes to reviewing his films. I say difficult because he comes up with films for which it is tough to analyse things in detail as such and also avoiding serious spoilers as well. At the same time he packs in way too much into his films, that it is tough not to think, assimilate one’s thoughts and then come up with something that you feel is satisfactory enough for the film in question. With his third film, the well anticipated Iraivi now in theatres it’s also heartening to say that Karthik has managed to pull it off once again. He has come up with a film that once again carries his stamp of intelligent filmmaking and is completely different from his earlier works, Pizza and Jigarthanda. With Iraivi the focus is on just a few characters, 3 men and 3 women to be precise. It’s a story of multiple relationships, with nothing seen as simple and straight forward.
Let’s start with the principal characters, we have Arul (S.J.Suryah) a filmmaker who is wallowing in the company of alcohol as he struggles to overcome the hurt and dismay of his last film remaining unreleased thanks to an unreasonable producer. His wife Yazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee) loves him and is unable to see him wasting himself like this. When she tries to ask him to move on ahead and start writing for a new film we see Arul admitting that it is just not possible for him. He relates the situation to that of wanting to have a kid while still having a baby in the womb. Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) is someone who has grown up with Arul and his brother Jagan (Bobby Simha) and is forever loyal to their family and does odd jobs for his survival. Michael has a physical relationship with Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya) and is unable to forget her even after his marriage to Ponni (Anjali). Jagan is a college student who appears initially as just an aggressive youngster and someone who is a loyal friend and companion of Michael and Arul but there certainly seems to be more to him beyond that in terms of his identity.
Karthik doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to establish his characters, we get to see them and understand them in great detail through most of the first half. There’s a method to the madness of Arul, something that only Michael and Jagan seem to be able to understand. Michael is someone who doesn’t really have any regular job or profession, making Ponni even ask him post his return from jail as to what would he do now. Jagan is over ambitious, he feels it’s time to make use of the hard work of his father (Radha Ravi) and forefathers (they were all talented sculptors) in a way that takes even Arul by surprise initially. Certain things are implied and left for us to understand and Karthik does not spoon feed thankfully. Like it is apparent that Arul at one point had seen success as a filmmaker, or that Arul and Yazhini were madly in love with each other earlier and that Arul and Jagan’s father used to completely dominate their mother (Vadivukkarasi), who is now sadly lying helpless as a comatose patient.
Karthik has smartly gone on to even take digs at his own industry, be it the producer who is scheming and clearly with an agenda to make life nasty for Arul, the vagaries of releasing a film, how one tends to throw success parties for a film on just completing one week in theatres or the reference to masala movies and Dolby Atmos as well. The Ilaiyaraaja tribute is something that no one can miss unless he/she is sleeping through the film. Be it “Thendral Vanthu Theendum”, “Manguyile Poonguyile” or “Unnai Thaane”, the references are rightly made, with Arul openly admitting his fondness for the maestro’s work. In admitting that the film is partly inspired by late Sujatha’s ‘Jannal Malar’ I’m sure the number of new readers of the work are going to increase manifold, mostly out of curiosity that’s been raised thanks to the admission by Karthik. Despite the film being called Iraivi and making frequent references to the term it’s not really a film that’s about the women or told from their perspective. That being said all the 3 women and even Arul and Jagan’s mother have a significant contribution to the tale overall.
As a few others have pointed out as well the reference to Mani Ratnam’s Aayitha Ezhuthu is quite clearly evident. There’s also a reminder of Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking in a gentle manner in the form of Arul’s time spent in an alcohol de-addiction centre which uses unconventional methods for getting people to kick their habit of drinking. And the auteur in Karthik comes up with some eye catching shots like the one where we see one of the prisoner’s uniforms left to dry after washing losing its grip on the clothesline and falling down, a long shot of windmills followed by a row of bicycles where the cycles fall one after the other in an orchestrated fashion. And there are enough and more scenes where both the dialogue as well as the overall nature of the scene leaves you asking for more. To mention just a couple of examples one can think of the hospital scene where the men are all sitting around the comatose lady and plotting a way to ensure they make money for getting hold of Arul’s film, with a nurse coming over repeatedly and reminding them that it is a hospital and to keep the voices low.
It’s a rare scene which shows us Radha Ravi losing his cool and alluding us to the kind of person he was at home in the past. The other scene that I would consider over here is the brilliant portion which sees Michael at Malarvizhi’s place for the last time as we see Malarvizhi wonderfully taking stock of the situation and bringing a culmination to their relationship. It’s a rare moment where the woman is totally in charge and it is she who decides what is to be done with respect to closure. For a moment I felt that the film is suddenly taking a heist route and felt happy when that actually did not happen. In fact one of the biggest victories for Karthik with respect to Iraivi is that it is actually a rare film where you don’t find it easy to predict the flow of the tale. Neither did the trailer reveal much about the film and nor does even the interval point clearly point out to how the film might actually end up. In today’s times with the kind of growing exposure to films and everything around us I would certainly consider this to be an achievement for the filmmaker.
Sivakumar Vijayan who had made a mark for himself with the cinematography of films like Vidiyum Munn, Saala Khadoos and Irudhi Suttru once again demonstrates that he is a talent to watch out for. In Iraivi he gives us enough and more examples of how good his craft is. Santosh Narayanan who impressed a lot with his work in the previous two films of Karthik Subbaraj is only partially in form over here. In terms of the BGM he is quite effective as always but when it comes to the songs he has disappointed in a way. His previous two albums also were nothing great to talk about and I certainly hope that with the soundtrack of Kabali we will see him back in absolute form very soon. Editor Vivek Harshan by now seems to understand Karthik Subbaraj’s requirement clearly and the result is there to see. When the director and editor are in sync the equation gets very tangible with respect to the narrative moving along at the required pace and the cuts being placed in such a fashion that one just feels that the flow is seamless all the way.
It’s also good to see that even some of the supporting characters have some depth to them. Radha Ravi as the father of Arul and Jagan and the benefactor of Michael underplays himself very well and continues his tremendous form of late. 2016 seems to be a golden year for the veteran actor, we are still a few weeks away from the half way stage this year and Iraivi happens to be the 10th release for Radha Ravi, of which most of his work has got noticed and appreciated, fabulous indeed. I am glad to see someone as talented as Cheenu Mohan staging a comeback over here. Though mainly known for his comedy roles on stage here he plays Michael’s chittapa (paternal uncle) and Radha Ravi’s trusted aide with great maturity and ease. If S.J.Suryah’s wonderful summation of men and women and the differences between the two at the end impact you then partly the credit also goes to Cheenu Mohan who actually prods him for that response with a leading question.
The women are all terrific in the film, Vadivukkarasi has just one scene with dialogues but even then she manages to leave an impression with her silent presence all through the rest of the film. Kamalinee Mukherjee once again reminds us that she is still so good looking and quite talented as well. As Yazhini she gets to play a character still in love with Arul but is unable to cope up with the way he is destroying himself and their relationship. In fact her scenes with S.J.Suryah are wonderful, the chemistry between them being evident and adding value to those moments. It’s been ages since we saw Anjali in a role of substance but she more than makes up for it over here as he portrays Ponni with a lot of energy and elegance. She is someone who is not afraid to speak her mind and is more than capable of taking care of herself and her child if the need be. But the one who probably holds our attention the most, making the most of the limited screen time allotted is Pooja Devariya who is fantastic as Malarvizhi, one of the most practical and boldest woman characters seen in the history of Tamil cinema. In fact I really wished we could have seen more of her, look at the way she sparkles in the scene where Michael brings his uncle to her place to ask her to marry him, here’s someone we need to watch out for.
Vijay Sethupathi plays Michael with near perfection, maintaining the right balance between restraint and aggression. He portrays helplessness, flair and contempt, all with equal measure and does it very well. His relationship with Arul, Ponni and Malarvizhi are all equally good and carry potential to have a spinoff on their own. Bobby Simha as Jagan is someone who probably deserved a better scope in the film, especially considering that his character is someone who brings in the required shift in the proceedings as the film chugs along. In fact as a result of his character not getting sufficient attention the volte face as and when it happens doesn’t really come across as convincing enough. This is one of the rare areas in which Karthik Subbaraj seems to have missed out in terms of getting his act right. But the biggest revelation in the film is S.J.Suryah’s acting prowess as we see him play Arul in great style and makes us root for him. In all the films that he has done as an actor I must admit that he has never really impressed me as such, but over here he actually makes us forget all his past work as he reinvents himself creditably. And for enabling that the credit must go to Karthik indeed.
In retrospect Iraivi probably isn’t the best of Karthik so far (at least on my first viewing I feel Jigarthanda is slightly better) but it’s a fine follow up act to his previous work and leaves you thinking, about the characters, the moments and the dialogues. Also considering that this is probably not as audience friendly as his previous two films it is also a lot riskier as well. The very fact that that I still have a few questions in my mind and hence want to watch it again indicates that Karthik has done his job. Go watch the film with an open mind; after all you don’t come across films such as this one too often these days.
Note: While Iraivi is playing in a few screens in places like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi/NCR it’s strange to see that the film isn’t playing with English subtitles in markets like these. There are a lot of people who don’t know Tamil and still want to watch the film, I really hope the decision makers go on to add subtitles soon.