There are no half-measures in Don. There’s no subtlety either. And Don, self-aware, seems firm in its conviction that there is entertainment in simplistic writing and exaggerated performances that play to the gallery, even when actors sometimes break character. It’s a film about college life, and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the film’s eagerness to entertain and the reckless exuberance of youth. The college the film is set in is called… Best Engineering College.
And you are introduced to it not through the usual, straightforward shot of Chakravarthy (Sivakarthikeyan) walking through its gate on the first day, but through an advertisement of the college that plays out in the theatre like the many advertisements that play before the screening of a film. This serves to amuse, and more importantly, position you, the viewer, against the college and towards the protagonist, Chakravarthy. Just like him, you dislike Bhoominathan (SJ Suriya), the Discipline Head (an Umbridge-like position I didn’t even know colleges had). Just like him, you dislike his father (Samuthirakani). You don’t worry that Cibi, sorry, Chakravarthy has as many arrears as Bhoominathan has rules, and you don’t even worry that he is almost always on the cusp of dismissal. You are tethered to Chakravarthy’s perspective, and I enjoyed that this film, surprisingly, forces you to examine your own judgment of what happens for much of the film.
Don is a celebration of the college spirit, and for the young, it’s timely, while for the old, it’s a whiff of good ol’ nostalgia. It reminds us of silly times when ‘TC’ used to be a dreaded word. And in hindsight, you realise that it wasn’t the possibility of dismissal that scared you, but the potential familial and social condemnation. You remember how teachers seemed heartless, how friends seemed above all else, how career choices changed ever so often…
In Don, this last idea is likeably stretched till the end—and of course, Chakravarthy finds his passion—but I enjoyed that the film tries to normalise not knowing what you want to do, especially at an age where you know so little about the world… and yourself. Even while the film speaks, without breaking a sweat, of the many ridiculous expectations asphyxiating youngsters, it also covers college life in loving detail, including canteens and culturals, which manage to find meaning in the narrative as well. The canteen, for instance, gives Chakravarthy an effective way in which to rebel against Bhoominathan (SJ Suryah, in what can almost be called a guest appearance).
In a film that’s over 160 minutes long, it might have run the risk of seeming a bit plain after a while, but director Cibi is as restless as a college-going youngster—and I mean this as a compliment. By interval, the Chakravarthy-Bhoominathan conflict gets well-established, and it feels like there isn’t much else to it. And yet, the film soldiers on in enterprising ways during the other half. Bhoominathan’s solution for the Chakravarthy problem is clever and fitting of his purpose.
Chakravarthy’s rebellious response results in the teachers having to write examinations, and this results in perhaps the film’s most entertaining phase with the student-teacher identities getting swapped. The director provides us all with a lot of catharsis for what we heard growing up in educational institutions, including that notorious response when you forgot something: “Saapda marandhiya?” (In an earlier riotous scene, Chakravarthy says yes, and goes away to eat). Or how about when Chakravarthy and friends sit next to a professor, staring into his eyes intently, while he’s writing an exam—as payback for when it used to be the other way round? These are hilarious portions and stand as testament of the director’s keen observations of college life.
It helps him that Sivakarthikeyan is terrific with such humour. Watch him as he stands defeated at around interval, dressed in uniform, and carrying books he has no interest in. Anirudh’s background score is simply the sad version of ‘Baasha paaru’, and for a minute, it’s easy to forget that this actor is a bonafide star—and this ability to make us forget that is this actor’s strength. He can play not just a college student, but a school student as well. It’s well-known he is great at humour, but in this film, he shows a real interest in also climbing into the emotional portions, as evidenced by that final, unexpectedly moving, stretch.
Some of the writing is often a bit too eager to have an effect, and so, this film is prone to exaggerations in writing and performances from time to time. Chakravarthy’s father doesn’t like his son’s career choice, and his response is to bring home a mad man who has failed at the same career. It’s extreme, a bit too dramatic, but then, this film remains aware of this. In the very next scene, Chakravarthy’s friend says, “Unakku manda kodaichal kudukarthukku unga appa room pottu yosipaar pola…” It’s exactly what I was thinking too.
However, all this self-awareness still doesn’t help sell Chakravarthy’s relationship with Angayarkanni (Priyanka). The humour is fine, but all she is, is the ‘vellai nilaa’, like he refers to her. She’s the usual crutch women are usually shown to be in these films, and even any objections she has about his refusal to own their relationship don’t amount to much. There are a couple of songs based on the two, with Anirudh’s ‘Private Party’ being a particularly enjoyable distraction.
Don may have the exterior of a fun, college film, but its core is made of solid emotion. Though our sympathies lie with Chakravarthy, the film remembers that he’s still a naïve, college student, who lacks the capacity to see the bigger picture. I liked the writing maturity in these spaces and enjoyed that nobody is truly evil in Don. The two ‘bad’ men, Chakravarthy’s father and Bhoomi, even evolve during this film. At a time when even heroes, played by stars, don’t evolve in films, it’s quite something to see supporting characters have an arc. But wait, am I saying that Don is an example of tremendous storytelling? Does the film have anything revolutionary to communicate? The answer is no on both counts, but sometimes, the bigger question is, does the lack of finesse and novelty come in the way of entertainment? That would be a firm no from me.
Director: Cibi Chakravarthi
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Priyanka Mohan, Samuthirakani, SJ Suryah