If there’s one road to hell paved with good intentions, it is the rabbit hole that Tamil cinema climbs into whenever it tries to make a strong statement about rape or sexual violence. Going one step forward and two steps back this week is director Bala’s Naachiyaar.
The film deserves the spotlight for the kind of characters it focuses on. Centred around a woman, and keeping a realistic but empathetic eye on the lives of the urban poor, Naachiyaar is certainly moving away from the "mass" track. But it doesn't get far enough.
The film caught everyone’s attention when the teaser saw actor Jyothika swearing as part of her tough-as-nails cop avatar. For all the excitement this avatar generated though, Jyothika’s Naachiyaar is something of a storm in a teacup, simply having a woman walk, talk and act like the male heroes we’re so used to.
So, Naachiyaar is more comfortable kicking, punching and beating people with lathis than talking to them. Indeed, watching her in action one would have to wonder if the only training cops in India receive is one long session on custodial violence.
The more interesting story is that of Kaathavaraayan (GV Prakash) and Arasi (Ivana), a pair of teenagers who fall in love only to suddenly find themselves tangled in an unplanned pregnancy and questions of statutory rape. While a helpless Arasi comes under Naachiyaar’s care, Kaathu is sent into remand, and the story of their relationship is unpacked.
These early sequences show that Bala has a fair eye for representing the lives of the poor in Chennai. So there’s a scene where Kaathu is insulted for trying to take home an extra plate of biriyani from a wedding for his mother, and Arasi chastises him for begging when he works like a dog to earn a wage. And there’s the conversation they have about how Kaathu should wear pants and not Bermuda shorts if he wants to be respected.
These little nuggets though disappear when a further bombshell drops at the interval. And here’s where the film finds itself in problematic territory. Trying to steer clear of victim-blaming in the aftermath of sexual violence, the film ends up infantlising the survivor. That it’s Naachiyaar who makes this decision, and plays it out, only makes this even more problematic. The all too predictable solution to rape, too, is disappointing.
The first half of the film boasts of some acting high points, with a much-transformed Prakash and Ivana holding their own. Ivana, though, is made to weep her through more of the film than necessary. And Prakash overplays some of the more intense emotional scenes, particularly towards the climax. Jyothika gamely tries to pull off the tough guy avatar. But the rigidly masculine character fits uneasily on her.
While Jyothika's portrayal is certainly a switch from her earlier roles, that isn't necessarily a good thing. Asking her to bring the same violent bravado of Kollywood's male heroes does her a disservice, and the discomfort is plain to see.
Ilaiyaraaja displays a light hand with the music, never letting it overwhelm the action on screen.
In the end, Naachiyaar comes off as a film that tries to get off the beaten path when talking about rape, but lacks the imagination to really pull it off.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.