The villain’s dialogue from the film, ‘That speech was more educational than emotional’ just about sums up this preachy attempt.

Suriya in Etharkkum Thunindhavan screenshot
Flix Review Thursday, March 10, 2022 - 15:03

That Suriya supports several social causes in real life, and is probably the only star of his generation from the Tamil film industry to speak up on political issues consistently, is well known. His public persona has increasingly been reflected in his choice of films. The actor rose to stardom as a romance hero, then cemented his place in the industry with action films, and later turned to social dramas pegged on causes that are perceived to be a discussion point among the audience. The latest in that line-up is Etharkkum Thunindhavan (ET), directed by Pandiraj, and is clearly inspired by the Pollachi sexual assault case of 2019. At the time, Suriya wrote a powerful letter about the case in The Hindu Tamil, which was widely appreciated. 

ET, however, shows none of the nuance in his arguments from the letter. Suriya plays Kannabiran, a lawyer (in his last release Jai Bhim, too, he played one) who lives with his family in Thennaadu. The people of Thennaadu and the people of Vadanaadu are in the habit of “giving and taking” girls from each other’s families for marriage. They also celebrate a festival in honour of women called ‘Penn Pugazh’, and everyone is apparently very happy whenever a girl child is born. The birth is followed by the planting of 111 trees so that when the girl reaches 21, she can be married off with the money that the yield will give the families.

Surprisingly, in all this celebration of womanhood, nobody seems to think that the education of girls and supporting their careers are causes worthy of investing in. Nobody wonders why the financial burden of a young woman’s wedding should fall on her family. In all these scenes celebrating women, men sit and discuss their future prospects, make decisions on their behalf and benevolently provide their idea of justice when needed. I don’t mean this review to turn into an academic essay but I was struck by how little thought has gone into writing the script. I felt like I was watching a 2.5-hour manel on Women’s Day.

Watch: Trailer of Etharkkum Thunindhavan

Kannabiran is a reference to Krishna of Hindu mythology, the avatar who saved Draupadi from humiliation when she was stripped in the court of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. So, of course, Suriya is entirely in saviour mode all through the film (unlike Jai Bhim, where there was space for other characters, too, to have their say even if in a limited capacity), playing the good annan to hapless victims. This plot thread is mixed up with an extremely annoying romance track involving Priyanka Arul Mohan. The actor’s Aadhini falls under the ‘cringe cute’ category of heroines, and my heart went out to her when she’s required to ask Kannabiran if he had done ‘ucha’ (urine), just like his mother always did. And oh, though everyone celebrates the birth of a girl child in Thennaadu and Vadanaadu, when Aadhini and Kannabiran are romancing in the song, ‘Silluku Jibba’, she sings “Unakkum enakkum magan dhan pirappan” (Only a son will be born to the two of us). I’m guessing this couple doesn’t believe in the transformative power of trees that much.

The tonal shift in the screenplay is abrupt and disorienting, as the film attempts to be a romcom and thriller at the same time, failing at both. Saranya Ponvannan, Satyaraj, Devadarshni, MS Bhaskar and Ilavarasu, who are in supporting roles, are seasoned performers, and try vainly to hold the film together. However, the caricaturish treatment simply does not work. Suriya himself looks wooden in most scenes, clearly struggling to emote. Soori and Pugazh attempt a few jokes that fall flat, and it only makes the film longer than it needs to be.

Vinay Rai appears as Inba, a bluetooth wearing villain, who likes to play the piano because the director couldn’t think of anything else he could do in the film. The characterisation is so generic that I burst out laughing in the scene when he talks about how many types of alcohol, how many types of drugs and how many types of women he has “consumed”. But Inba also has a fourth wall breaking moment in the film, when after a long speech by one of the pivotal characters, he says, "That speech was more educational than emotional." I hear you, brother, because that is precisely the problem with ET. The preaching and messaging are so in your face that you could have been sitting in a lecture hall and not a movie theatre.

Somewhere in the film, Suriya delivers a version of his newspaper article to the camera. It could have been a powerful moment on screen, but the rest of the film is so insincere and badly written that I felt nothing. I suppose the intention can be applauded but I’m tired of the expectation that we should be satisfied with these slim pickings. If filmmakers really want to make a film that deals sensitively with sexual violence, they should be willing to do their research; but using sexual violence as a peg to showcase the hero’s masculinity is a hollow attempt that needs to be called out, and recognised as offensive. The climax is loud and absurdly staged, falling back on the familiar trope of vigilante justice — because well, how else were we going to see 3,000 shots of Suriya folding his vetti

Etharkkum Thunindhavan means the daredevil who is ready for anything. Is Suriya ready to lend a ear to this criticism and perhaps change his approach to cinema? Less preaching, more craft? Less saving, more listening?

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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