A middling Retelling

Growing up in the Madras of the 90s, Ramar ‘Mooligai Petrol’ Pillai was the stuff of legends.

Published: 21st May 2019 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd May 2019 08:48 AM   |  A+A-

thiravam

Express News Service

Growing up in the Madras of the 90s, Ramar ‘Mooligai Petrol’ Pillai was the stuff of legends. He claimed his invention, the herbal fuel, would reduce transportation costs. However, his fall was as spectacular as his rise, and Thiravam is a fictonalised version of this story that marks the digital debut of actor Prasanna. Here, he plays the middle-aged, socially awkward, grey-haired scientist, Ravi Prakasam (RP), who gets into trouble for inventing a cost-effective fuel, and faces the wrath of powerful political and corporate parties who want to bump him off.

Though an ominous voiceover introduces us to the plight of this ‘cornered man’, you never feel this intensity due to the various tonal shifts. Is this a family drama detailing the sacrifices RP has to do to safeguard his young daughter? Is this a political commentary about the futility of ethics in the time of horsetrading and corporate criminals? Is this a violent drama whose characters get burned down and bludgeoned to death? Is this a dark comedy? To be fair, you do warm up to these shifts as the series progresses, thanks to impressive performances — not because of its writing, which largely falls flat, especially in the serious scenes.

Though powerful people are hunting down RP, his escapes feel too convenient. People, painted as double-crossers, are suddenly shown to be well-wishers. While such bizarre occurrences, not limited to the well-composed but wholly unnecessary song, threaten to derail proceedings, Thiravam stays on course thanks to the strong undercurrent of humour.

Led by a superlative Azhagam Perumal, who plays Vetrivel, a foul-mouthed MLA out to retrieve the herbal fuel formula from RP, the comedy track in Thiravam is a hoot. Although his interactions with his henchmen, and his adversaries, are well-written, Vetrivel doesn’t have any real bearing on the events. Actors like Indhuja, John Vijay, Kaali Venkat, Swayam, and Nagendra Prasad come up with decent performances in roles that definitely needed more fleshing out. 

While these characters do impress, it is Prasanna who is the cynosure of all attention. As a doting father, a conflicted lover, and a beleaguered but focussed scientist, the Kaala Koothu actor puts up an earnest performance in a role that reminded me of his very own underwhelming Sadhu Miranda. Here, you see how much he has improved as an actor. He pulls off expressions that make you question why morew good roles are not written for him. Look out for that scene where he confronts a friend he has fallen in love with. Though there are occasions when he oversells his socially awkward character, he does deliver a mostly even performance. 

Cinematographer Arvind Krishna, who has worked on the web-series as director and screenplay writer, has done a decent job of bringing together Yugi Sethu’s story, which goes on random tangents. You have interesting references to Pudhiya Paravai and Arindhum Ariyamalum in this film. You have a Union Minister Jethu Ram Thakur, a Narendra Modi lookalike, who, of course, says dialogues like “Military namma kai la dhaan irukku” and “Governor namma aalu dhaan”. You have twists and turns that are more par for the course than unpredictable. You have profanities strewn all over the series that are mechanically delivered by actors.

Although this eight-episode web-series is inspired by the story of Ramar Pillai, there is no ambiguity about the innocence of Prasanna’s Ravi Prakasam. Though physically dissimilar, there are quite a few similarities between RP and his inspiration. Right from the educational background to the famed failed demonstration of his eco-friendly fuel, the lines between reality and fiction are constantly blurred in Thiravam, which ends with the promise of a sequel.

Recently, we had a web-series on another infamous Tamil personality, Auto Shankar, which had to face criticism over the humanisation of a criminal. Though Thiravam doesn’t explicitly take the side of Ramar Pillai, the clear-cut positive storyline of Ravi Prakasam does make you wonder if a case is being made for Ramar not being the fraud he is portrayed to be. Was he a visionary scientist who will be exalted years after his death? Was he the victim of an international conspiracy to discredit his work? Or was he just what everyone is convinced he was... A charlatan?

Director: Arvind Krishna
Cast: Prasanna, Indhuja, 
Azhagam Perumal, John Vijay

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