Thursday, 10 May 2018

Nadigaiyar Thilagam: Goosebumps a gogo

There are movies you get stuck, well, in the first line of the review, just simply thinking where on earth should I start this from. Like reporter Vani of Prajavani daily, who goes on a roller coaster ride to record Savitri's biography, writing a viewer's note for Nadigaiyar Thilagam(Mahanati, in Telugu) is like something that costs a lifetime.

Howbeit, I can't simply skip writing a note, as this earns me bread and butter. So, it is from the lead actor Keerthy Suresh, at least, just to stick to the conventions of film criticism, I am initiating this note.

Personally, being a big fan of Maya Bazaar who had watched the classic at a rock-bottom 10 times, I was wondering how Keerthy Suresh would pull it off. Becoming Savitri for an actor of this era is as labourious as it takes for Modi to become a statesman. You have to transform into the person who was playing the role of a luminary onscreen, as well, a true luminary off the screen.

Apparently, I was also waiting a long time for a filmmaker to procure and ladle out what the maximum that Keerthy can do, forsooth. If not just for me to enjoy the actress' forte, at least to let those dumb-ass mouths in social media shut, verbatim.

So, here I have Nadigaiyar Thilagam, as an answer to both the questions. Stopping with not just having the nickname of the legendary artiste in the title of this biopic, Keerthy has turned out to be one. I can hear voices now, ruing at me for saying that. Guys, I was in all my senses when writing this. Chill!

For those, who have not watched Maya Bazaar, try watching it once. There is a scene where Savitri would be imitating the mannerisms of Ranga Rao. In that part of the film, Savitri had to play the roles of two people in one frame - Vatsala, and Gadotgajan. When you have the same sequence in Nadigaiyar Thilagam, Keerthy had to do the roles of three people, Vatsala, Gadotgajan, and Savitri herself. And, this one scene is all enough for someone to appraise the abilities of this actress. So, I'm repeating, shut your mouths. I cannot comment anything more about Keerthy's performance, as that itself demands a separate blog post. Just watch and enjoy.

Biopics and Tamil cinema have been on two sides of a coin since the days when Edison(maybe Tesla) built the projection apparatus. Still, we can list a few from older times Kappalottiya Tamizhan, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Bharati, Kamaraj, Periyar, Ramanujan and a couple others. Though we have these many, they still were just record of events but not proper biopics.

Even the masala factory of Indian cinema, the Bollywood, too had revolutionary biopics like The Dirty Picture... Oops, sorry, Mary Kom, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In last six months, there have been three biopics in Hindi including Padman. For Tamil, all that is left is Meesaya Murukku. (I just ROFLed).

There were legendary directors herein Tamil, who were so legendary that they made biopics on politicians without even mentioning their names or political parties. If you think I was talking about Maniratnam's Iruvar, I can't take up the responsibility for your interpretations.

But for director Nag Ashwin, whose Mahanati/Nadigaiyar Thilagam being just his second feature film, this is one bold attempt of his whole career that would stretch for next few decades. One cannot simply show how rude and egoistic was a superstar like Gemini Ganesan, in his real life. He has even taken a giant step to portray an iconic filmmaker like LV Prasad making a wrong decision as a director and apologising (in a subtle fashion) for the same.

Nag's choices in casting come next to his boldness. Where did he find that actor who played the role of LV Prasad? Man, I had my jaw down for a while.

Until I saw him onscreen, I was judgemental that Dulquer was in this movie just to make sure the movie grosses something in Kerala box office. But, this time, it's my turn to shut mouth. The body language of DQ as Gemini can even fetch him the credit of 21st century's Kadhal Mannan - expedient. I believe a share of this credit goes to Nag's casting.

The romance portions where Gemini dates Savitri tend to rope you towards the screen while you get swept off. The usage of Vaarayo vennilaavae song in the original love track of Gemini-Savitri is one brilliant filmmaking element.

Finally, its Nag's narration. A few passages ago, I had said biopics of Tamil have always been records of events. Here, in Nadigaiyar Thilagam, we see a narrative that is offbeat. I still remember a few film buffs questioning when the first look of this movie was out - "What is the need for someone to know about the life of an actor, who lived five decades ago?" or "What is my take away from this?" But, Ashwin has an answer to this. The movie does not start from the very birth of Savitri and ends as she dies like the usual biopics. And, you really have something to grab from the 150 minutes of back and forth time travel.

You can witness an Uthama-Villainisque narrative where the screenplay toggles between two parallel stories and there is a philosophical connection between the two. And there, Nag sells the movie. The spectators' take away lies in every connection of the two stories, where the director spoonfeeds them on how to learn values from Savitri's life, but with an utmost subtlety. Along with that, do you think, one can grip you with an element of suspense in a biopic? Nag actually does that.

For this parallel narrations, you get to experience the frequent transformation of colour tones in three different formats. The 80's track of the story has an Eastman-coloured frame relating to that time period. While the film-shooting frames are in grayscale and, the real biopic track is on a magical scale - a real visual illusion. Every frame has its own detail embedded. Of all, one frame that still stays before me is how the projection ray forms a halo behind the young Savitri, who sees herself onscreen for the first time. It is a collaborative workmanship of the DoP, the Editor, and the DI colourist, that you behold.

Nag and crew's effort is visible until the last moment when you are about to leave the screen. During the end credits, you can see how they have managed to replicate the real-reel over the reel-reel. Hope you got that.

When you ask me whether Nadigaiyar Thilagam was all fine, I cannot say astringent yes. If I had watched Mahanati, it surely would have been a yes. I was feeling uneasy a bit for the lipsync and the lack of nativity. On the other hand, Karky makes this lipsync watchable during songs, yet with a sensible set of lyrics. My favourite was how the line 'Irudhiyil yenna yenjum?' connects the two storylines blended with a musical score that takes you to the 60's and the 80's. But again in some conversations, I even felt they could have had those dialogues in a proper Telugu with subtitles than a destructive Tamil.

So, I decided right at the beginning of the movie, when Savitri asks how many drops of tears does the director want her to release, to watch it again in Telugu, with my favourite Rekhs' subtitles. If so much of goosebumps can be felt in a dubbed version, what would be the experience one avails from the original? But, don't expect a viewer's note for Mahanati. I'm not ready to spend another lifetime, writing one.

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Chennai, May 10, 2018.

This viewer's note is completely based on the perceptions of Santhosh Mathevan alone. This does not reflect the views of two or more people or a community. Queries and criticism shall be addressed to the writer only.