It’s rare to see man-woman friendship in our cinema. It’s rarer still to see it being the central relationship of a film, let alone have the characters, Thiruchitrambalam/Pazham and Shobana, be played by a bonafide hero and heroine in Dhanush and Nithya Menen, respectively. I loved that Dhanush, in many scenes, is happy not drawing attention to himself, and this, among other facets of this relationship, allows the Pazham-Shobana bond to really thrive.
In a sense, Pazham feels like a derivative of VIP’s Raghuvaran. Pazham too is a man-child; he too has a problem with the father; he too has mother-related trauma; he too hopes to rise from lower middle-class misery. In fact, this film too, in a sense, channels the best of VIP. The music is great—and hey, just like in VIP, here too we get a long monologue from Dhanush, as the camera zooms into his face.
There, he speaks about the struggles of the middle-class; here, he speaks about the struggles of a single man. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this film were conceived as a more emotional version of VIP. Let’s avoid the fights. Let’s avoid a villain. Let’s focus inwards.
It makes sense that Dhanush, at the audio launch, tried to temper expectations by pointing out that ‘mass’ isn’t just about beating up bad guys. In a big scene concerning the mending of a father-son relationship, Pazham must decide whether he wants to help a man get back up. Pay attention to Anirudh’s music, and you’ll see that this decision is interpreted as an act of heroism (it is!). The ‘mass’ in Thiruchitrambalam is in becoming a better person, the heroism is in beating up… personal demons. These are lovely ideas in the film.
While on compliments, how do I not speak of Nithya Menen, who exudes such casual charm, playing Pazham’s friend, Shobana. She talks like you so rarely see heroines do; she laughs without a worry in the world. In fact, in some scenes, I didn’t think she had all that much to laugh about, but it didn’t matter because the actor brings an infectious, cutesy charm to the character—and is, along with Bharathiraja, the oxygen of this film.
Watch her flash an unselfish smile at Pazham and his girlfriend in the wonderfully staged ‘City of Stars’, sorry, ‘Megham Karukaadha’. Watch her bite back with ‘poda’ and ‘podi’, in a way that’s sure to remind us of those we love. Watch her happily slurp on an ice cream even while casually dispensing serious life advice to Pazham. Nithya’s Shobana comes across as the woman-friend who would make every man better.
In the case of Pazham and his traumatic past, he already has a sister-mother-shaped void in his life, and she fits into these roles perfectly. A scene that comes to mind is of Shobana storming into the room of Pazham’s cop-father (Prakash Raj) and rebuking him for his misbehaviour. Shobana is a proxy-mother, a proxy-sister, in the liberties she takes with Pazham, and in the platonic chemistry, she radiates when with him.
My singular prayer was that these two shouldn’t get forced into a romantic relationship. It’s rare that we see such a friendship in our cinema, unpolluted and unburdened by “hormonal problems” as Pazham’s grandfather puts it… And in any case, I didn’t think that Shobana seemed into Pazham, or that the film established any real emotional reason for why she might feel even a sliver of romance towards him. Anyway…
The other important relationship in the film is that of Pazham and his grandfather (a loveable Bharathiraja also named Thiruchitrambalam). They drink together, they engage in banter… The film understands that there can be much love in irreverence, and for that reason, we see many characters taking many liberties with each other.
Pazham refers to Shobana as ‘naaye’; the latter meanwhile has no qualms about saying ‘poyaa’ to Pazham’s grandfather. I enjoyed that Bharathiraaja’s character is a bit of a saguni at home. He has much time and noble intentions, and in his own way, wants to repay the home for being a ‘burden’ on them. He also gets perhaps the best dialogue of the film when he says, “Baarama irukardhula kooda oru sugam irukku.”
All this interest in the old—and in how they belong to a family—reminded me of Dhanush’s directorial, Power Paandi. This film also shows a bit of love for Dhanush’s other grandparents. I wish though that the film didn’t subscribe to the sanctimonious, easy philosophy of old people knowing best. For all its irreverence and refusal to subscribe to conventional writing devices, this line of thought seems surprisingly submissive. I also wish that the dysfunctional relationship between Pazham and his father were explored with more nuance.
It’s just too easy, too theatrical, that these two characters haven’t spoken in years. What’d be more difficult, more realistic, would be to show them sharing a functional relationship, over a layer of unresolved issues. A medical condition that afflicts Pazham’s father also gets resolved too easily and offers little catharsis. Pazham also problematically seems to justify being beaten up by his father under the label of ‘gethu’.
While on violence, I found it such a relief that the film does away with a ‘villain’. There’s one niggly, external, evil guy, but even that angle isn’t milked for a rousing fight sequence. Instead, we get realistic resistance from Pazham, as he flails his hands about, like a man who has never delivered a single punch.
While the stunt choreography is great, the internal transformation of Pazham feels rather hurried—and in any case, I am not sure why the victim of a ghastly accident fears violence more than hospital rooms or traffic. It almost seems strange that Pazham, who suffers from deep trauma due to a road accident, has picked a job that has him spending such a long time on the road. Oh, and I didn’t really care for the film suggesting that riding a Bullet, as opposed to a Scooty, somehow makes one manlier. It makes you wonder what ‘manliness’ really is. Is it being aggressive and imposing? Or is it doing good by those around you?
I liked Thiruchitrambalam for how it mostly resists easy temptation to sink into melodrama. Pazham gets rejected by a girl, and where it would be so tempting to launch into the catchy ‘Thenmozhi Poongodi’ (this film’s version of ‘Kolaveri Di’), it doesn’t. Instead, you get the warm scene of Shobana reassuring Pazham of his value, and even in this scene, she quickly moves on and says she was just joking about his worth. The hint of a smile on Pazham’s face is enough to tell us he knows what’s true and what’s not.
These are such wonderful, understated portions in this film and THIS is really why I don’t get the sudden turn into ill-advised melodrama towards the end. It’s tragic really when a film, on the cusp of excellence, makes a dated choice that ends up leaving a sour aftertaste… And so, to end this review, I have no choice but to go back to the beginning. It’s rare to see man-woman friendship in our cinema…
Director: Mithran Jawahar
Cast: Dhanush, Nithya Menen, Bharathiraaja, Prakash Raj
(This review originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)