What makes a man evil? What is the biggest of all sins? Which mistake is unforgivable? What gives birth to a villain? Answers to such questions are often personal. One person’s right is another’s wrong. In Yaanai, Hari writes his good, bad, and ugly characters based on this thought, and he does an impressive job while adhering to his tried-and-tested ‘masala’ cinema formula.
At the outset, Yaanai might seem like a safe rehash of Hari’s yesteryear films, Vel and Ayya, where one man takes it all for the family and fights a common enemy. However, what makes Yaanai better are its characters, who all seem to subscribe to Chanakya’s quote, ‘Edhu thevaiyo adhuve dharmam’. The situations, upbringing, and overall environment dictate the decisions of these characters and their arcs are well-etched to make conflicts and twists feel organic. Perhaps the only aspect that sticks out is the uninventive comedy that relies on body-shaming Yogi Babu and others—especially because this film handles sensitive issues like inter-religious romance with much care.
At its heart, Yaanai is an anti-casteism film served with the right dose of masala. Hari achieves this one step at a time. Ravichandran (Arun Vijay) is a liberal stuck in a casteist household. Even though he puts up with his family, he never fails to call out their wrongs and make the right decisions within his power. Even though he holds his family close to his heart, he holds humanity closer. However, unlike the ‘pure’ protagonists we so often see, Ravi has his vices. He uses profanity, indulges in violence, and doesn’t shy away from smoking and drinking.
And yet, he is self-aware and knows his limits, and this places him between the angelic do-gooder protagonists and the happy-go-lucky wastrel protagonists. He has a rather unique personal goal as well: Reforestation. The usual commercial hero would have delivered a monologue, but Ravi presents a feasible plan to execute his vision and explains how it is commercially viable as well. I also loved the equation Ravi shares with Ammu Abhirami’s Selvi. Though the action is Arun’s home ground, he shines as an actor whenever he switches to being ‘Ravi appa’ for his nieces and nephews. It is quite commendable that Arun chose to play a father figure of a college student.
We have seen more than our share of angry young men dropping social messages while punching their way through masala films. But in Yaanai, I didn’t really mind the meltdown episodes of Ravi as his rage is against issues we usually turn a blind eye to, like alcoholism in temples and ‘aadalum paadalum’ dances in public. Instead of going into full-blown sermons, he asks the right, disturbing questions to offenders and moves on.
It is also refreshing that Priya Bhavani Shankar’s Jeba Malar isn’t the typical hero’s sidekick/motivator heroine. She has her code of ethics and stands for what she believes in. I particularly liked the scene in which she calls him out for exhibiting a toxic trait of his family. Despite being progressive in many places, I wish this had been more careful about the song, ‘Sandaliye’, which uses a casteist slur.
Yaanai has a dozen novel ideas, but it also has Hari tropes, starting from the signature director card with the kovil shot, a home invasion sequence, and the hero’s willingness to sacrifice his love for a greater good… The director hasn’t disowned his identity; instead, he returns as an upgraded filmmaker and this deserves a warm welcome.
So, to go back to square one, what makes a man loveable? What counts as the noblest deed? What gives birth to a hero? Why, it’s being able to forgive the unforgivable, of course! Is there any bigger virtue? It’s what makes Ravi a memorable protagonist and a true hero. When mainstream cinema brings such wholesomeness and depth, they do warrant some forgiveness from us for its flaws.
Cast: Arun Vijay, Priya Bhavani Shankar, Samuthirakani, Radikaa, Yogi Babu