The film discusses several sensitive mental health issues - drug addiction, suicidal thoughts and gaslighting - but its problem lies in not treating any of it sensitively.

Chennai Palani Mars review A jarring film with an insensitive take on mental health
Flix Kollywood Friday, July 26, 2019 - 09:57
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Chennai Palani Mars is an intriguing title for a film. The poster showed an astronaut in space being pulled back by a few other characters. A fantasy comedy perhaps? It was also announced that actor Vijay Sethupathi had co-written and co-produced this project along with director Biju. The duo had previously given us Orange Mittai, which although not a box-office success was appreciated by critics for its nuanced take on growing old and loneliness. There were also reports that Chennai Palani Mars had garnered international recognition before its release.

Therefore, imagine my surprise when all I could ask myself at the end of it was - “What did I just watch!?”

Chennai Palani Mars comes as a huge disappointment, especially for its highly callous take on mental health issues. The film also has plenty of scenes that will make you grimace, thanks to the poor writing.

The peculiar story unfolds over a short runtime of 2 hours. It begins with a voice-over by the narrator who is the film’s main protagonist, Akash played by Praveen Raja, telling us about a relentless passion and a failed dream. He introduces us to his father, and his perseverance to achieve a feat what is not just deemed impossible but one that is unheard of - travelling to Mars with just the speed of your thoughts.

To do so, the father and son climb atop what appears to be a small hillock, wear astronaut headgear (not the entire suit, just the headgear) and the father continuously pivots, pointing to a small metal pyramid in his hand like he’s waiting for some signal. Its a wacky idea and an interesting premise. We’re just a few minutes into the film, still in a mood to give it the benefit of the doubt.

We’re told something about the distance to Mars from Earth and the speed of human thought being faster than the speed of light. “People wouldn’t laugh when you tell them that you want to become someone like Sundar Pichai or Dhoni but they do when you tell them that your life’s dream is to travel to Mars!”  Akash tells the audience. Sure, we’ve travelled to Ibiza during mid-afternoon Chemistry lessons. Travelling to Mars with your thoughts, why not?

Even if this idea sounds bizarre to you, the ending is - wait for it - (what’s another word for insanely bizarre?) - bonkers? 

Coming back to the story - the father’s dream latches on to the son, and although he religiously follows him to the hillock every year for over two decades, the son has his own plans. He’s an astrophysicist, we’re told in one scene, and if your head was already spinning by that point, you might have missed this important information.

Chennai Palani Mars discusses several mental health issues - addiction, suicidal thoughts and gaslighting - but its problem lies in not treating any of it sensitively. The characters are crude, they’re treated cruelly and in the end, none of the unease you feel in such portrayals is resolved.

Akash is taken to a de-addiction centre for substance abuse. Here, he goads his roommate Andava Perumal who is a singer (played by Rajesh Giriprasad), also there for treatment, to kill himself. Right till the end, even after having almost killed him, Akash remains insensitive to Andava Perumal’s fears and paranoia.

The writing of the inspector-constable duo, Thiruppa and Velu (played by Vasanth Marimuthu and A Ravikumar) who are chasing after Akash and Andava Perumal, is even more problematic. The constable clearly gaslights the inspector throughout the film and certain scenes are written to elicit laughter. For someone who does not know what gaslighting means, these scenes can be difficult and confusing to watch.

Another insensitive portrayal is through a character who wants to die. He’s an IT employee planning on suicide and his path crosses with that of Akash and Andava Perumal and Thiruppa and Velu many times. Played by Pari Elavazhagan, this character too is written to make jokes out of - “Look it's the guy who wants to die, again! Isn’t he dead already?”

Even if you were to think deeper and associate a more meaningful, metaphorical layer to this film, that every character Akash meets on his way to achieve his dream is a form of his own mental health issue, Chennai Palani Mars buries this layer so deep, that it feels like a far-fetched assumption we’re making.

The film’s sound design gets jarring at many points and the cinematography - although there are plenty of visually appealing shots of the skies and landscapes - draws you out from its story with its yellow-tinged and blurred out frames.

For all the “science” Chennai Palani Mars talks about, the ending sounds more ridiculous than its initial premise. By interval, I was trying and wishing to travel back home with just the power of my thoughts. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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