Naane Varuvean begins when you learn that a disturbed young boy has set a young girl’s skirt on fire. Welcome back to my world, Selvaraghavan seems to be saying. Soon, someone else speaks of the pleasures of hunting a human as opposed to an animal. Someone else is said to possess eyes that seem to be radiating something demonic, and the filmmaker captures this sinister stare compellingly.
There’s something wildly enjoyable about seeing Selvaraghavan do things that are so unusual in our cinema, that few filmmakers show the stomach for. In his films, there are moments so dark, so persuasive in craft, that it’s impossible not to feel a primal rush. In Naane Varuvean, I felt a glorious high at interval point. The framing has a grinning girl in the foreground, and a man in the background, who’s frozen in fright. In between, we see the slow-motion walk of another man from behind him. Yuvan’s ritualistic theme track does the rest. It’s also enjoyable that Selvaraghavan returns to something more emotional, more intimate with this film.
I would be remiss, however, not to emphasise the pleasures of the first half. I enjoyed that the filmmaker takes on the overdone horror space and shows that with some tasteful touches, a novel experience can still be created. Among the many impressive visual choices is one vintage Selvaraghavan shot of Prabhu (Dhanush) standing near a locked door, while people around him scamper about in panic. Also, as this film is about a haunted child, it’s important to raise the point that our cinema usually either adultifies children or shows them as hapless victims. The writing of Naane Varuvean establishes the victim, young Sathya (a hugely impressive Hiya Davey), as an individual capable of self-reflection. At one point, she even protests against the condescending gaze of adults around her. I found Sathya to be a really likeable child, and this made the horrors she faces even more frightening.
How far behind can science be in a horror film? In Naane Varuvean, there are some new-age ghost-hunters, and there’s a psychiatrist too (Prabhu), but there’s no real foray into this age-old conundrum between science and religion.
Dhanush is terrific as Sathya’s docile father, Prabhu. Watch him radiate helplessness at being unable to help his daughter. My favourite is a scene on a terrace where one moment, he’s advising her from a position of reassurance and maturity, but then, he hears one frightening word and that cripples him into a state of fear and uncertainty. Dhanush is wonderful in these vulnerable spaces as Prabhu. Rather strangely, it’s the other character—the dynamic Kathir—that doesn’t cause as much impact as you would expect—especially after an explosive reveal. Dhanush laces Kathir with confidence and charm, but the character is simply not shaded with enough detail for us to understand—or be upset by him.
Kathir feels rather hollow, and the film doesn’t quite seem to make up its mind on the why of his violence, on the nature-nurture debate that usually surrounds such criminals. Where you feel sympathy and goodwill for Vinoth (Kaadhal Kondein), and where his violent dance feels like catharsis in a sense, it’s hard to feel anything for Kathir. And so, when you get a similar ritualistic dance and Yuvan jumps in with a haunting score, there’s the uncomfortable realisation that grisly murders might well be getting repurposed as entertainment. You are left rather confused about the objectives of the film, concerning Kathir. Does it aim to offer us morbid satisfaction? Does it aim to showcase a rot in the society? There are no great pleasures in the second half.
Naane Varuvean begins with the introduction of two brothers, and goes on to introduce two more brothers, but never sinks deep into either relationship. The name of one brother is said to strike paralysing fear into the other, and yet, not much gets made of this bond. Duality is a constant theme in this film. I mean, there are two sets of twins. Does it get any more dual than that? This film speaks of good and bad, light and darkness, god and devil… I suppose there’s bitter irony in how the film itself has turned out to be an exercise in duality. The first half is riveting, but…
Cast: Dhanush, Hiya Davey, Indhuja