Navarasa, created by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan, is an anthology film with the connecting theme being the nine rasas or emotions. As with any anthology, some films work better than the others. And some, not at all.
The first is Ethiri, directed by Bejoy Nambiar, and is based on the 'karuna' rasa or compassion. It's an interesting premise. A woman who has not spoken to her husband (Prakash Raj overdoing his role) for a decade watches his killer walk away from their home. What does she do next? Revathy looks lovely as Savithri, the conflicted wife, and Vijay Sethupathi is his natural self as Dheena, whose momentary lapse of judgment leads to a murder. The split screen follows these two characters (it somehow reminded me of Surya following his mother in Thalapathy), but Bejoy simply does not explore their dilemmas enough, even for the runtime of a short film.
The way the crime is treated in the film, you'd believe Dheena had stolen the man's car or broken a few windows. It's also puzzling that though it is the two men in the story who execute acts of cruelty, it is the woman who takes the blame for what happensâ€” in a verbose speech that sounds forced (and we don't even know the reason for the 'chinna sandai' between the couple).
Summer of 92, directed by Priyadarshan, is supposed to showcase 'hasya' or 'laughter', but 'bhibasta' or 'disgust' would have been more appropriate. Veluswamy (Yogi Babu), now a popular actor and comedian, is invited to his village school for an event and he delivers a speech. Yes, I know you're thinking of Katha Parayumbol which was remade in Tamil as Kuselan. But it's only the broad premise that is the same. The film is riddled with body shaming humour and tone deaf casteist comments. The younger version of Yogi Babu is repeatedly referred to as a pig in the film by his upper caste teachers and failed because of his mischiefâ€” but the viewer is supposed to think that this casteist behaviour is somehow funny.
The climax of the film involves a dog floating around in a pond covered with feces. I'm someone who enjoys potty humour, but you can't hold a fart (joke) for 30 minutes. You just can't.
Karthick Naren's Project Agni (on the theme of 'wonder'), featuring Arvind Swami and Prasanna, fares better than the first two films, though it seems way too inspired by Hollywood science fiction films like The Matrix and Interstellar. The characters are named after Hindu myths. Arvind Swami is Vishnu, a scientist, who's working with an assistant called Kalki. His wife is Lakshmi (a miscast Poorna), and his close friend and another scientist is Krishna (Prasanna). The 'science' part of the science fiction is decidedly wonky. The set looks like every other 'scientist' set, with a big clock, luminous green liquid, and a contraption to wear over the head. Is Vishnu a theoretical physicist, experimental physicist, chemist or engineer? Does it not matter because he is, after all, Vishnu?
Considering Vishnu makes strange statements, like astrologers getting it right most times in predicting the future (Vishnu should someday visit the family courts that are full of couples who got married after matching their horoscopes), it's hard to take him seriously as a man of science. It's true that many Indian scientists are believers who may indulge in superstitious rituals, but do they base their research on it? I hope not. Still, Project Agni has some twists that at least pique your interest.
Payasam, directed by Vasanth Sai, is based on T Janakiraman's story. Delhi Ganesh anchors the film with a very believable performance, playing an elderly Brahmin man consumed by jealousy. The rasa we're looking at is 'disgust', but the ending suggests that it could have fit the 'hasya' theme better. Perhaps Priyadarshan and Vasanth Sai should have exchanged their ideas. Set in 1965, the film is about a family elder who feels sidelined by his successful nephew and has turned bitter and resentful. Aditi Balan plays his widowed daughter and Rohini his dead wife, who appears as his subconscious.
Payasam documents the inner conflicts of a conservative Brahmin family through a wedding. While it works just as a story, I was left wondering why it did not do more with its characters. While the caste and gender politics are overtly on display on screen, the story only focuses on the nameless Delhi Ganesh character's envy. It feels like a lost opportunity to explore that milieu with a keener and insightful eye.
Karthik Subbaraj's Peace, based on the 'shanti' rasa, is yet another story he has chosen to tell on the Eelam struggle. Karthik's films generally tend to leave me feeling emotionally detached, but parts of Peace did move me (maybe because it involves a really cute puppy).
Gautham Menon and Bobby Simha play LTTE men who are safeguarding the frontline of a battle-torn territory. The Eelam Tamil that they speak is inconsistent, and unless you're already familiar with the history of the struggle, you will find it difficult to empathise with the men. All the more so because of the film's confused ending. Still, Peace is a far more honest outing on the subject than Karthik's Jagame Thanthiram that made a mockery of it.
Arvind Swami's debut film, Roudhram, based on anger, has the most affecting characters of all the films put together. It begins with Arul (Sree Raam) brutally assaulting a man on the road and being taken into custody for his crime. Simultaneously, we're shown a violent policewoman (Rythvika) who is known for custodial torture. The film unravels the reasons for Arun's anger and the repercussions it has.
Geetha Kailasam as Arul and Anbu's mother, a domestic worker, who has to struggle to make ends meet, delivers a moving performance. But though the film has much going for it, it is pulled down by its unwillingness to re-examine conventional ideas of honour. The phrase 'I was made a thevidiya payya' is uttered by one of the pivotal characters to explain what happens in the film; it is supposed to evoke your empathy, but the phrase is not only extremely demeaning to women, particularly sex workers, it once again makes the tragedy all about the man and his feelings about a woman's honour rather than her own experience of it. I also found it difficult to accept the daughter's responseâ€” delving into this would be a spoiler, but the complete lack of empathy seems forced.
Inmai, directed by Rathindran Prasad, is by far the most unpredictable of the nine films. A thriller revolving around the djinn, the film examines fear, guilt and the games that the mind can play when it becomes consumed by both. Parvathy plays Waheeda, a sophisticated Muslim woman who opens the door to Farooq (Siddharth) who has come to get her signature on some papers. But soon, she discovers that he's not who he says he is.
Ammu Abhirami plays Parvathy's younger self in the flashback and I wondered why. Though the two actors sport the same cut in the eyebrow and nose stud, they look nothing like each other. The choice to cast another actor is puzzling, given that Siddharth has played his younger self in the film (and so has Suriya in Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru). While most horror films depend on camera angles, suspenseful music and jump scares to create fear, here, the terror is entirely in Waheeda's head.
It's also interesting to see a woman like Waheeda being represented on screen, someone who is aware of her sexuality and isn't afraid of using it. But before you can enjoy her amorality (a personality that several male heroes have adopted in many films), she's given a heavy handed punishment for it. Yet again, the hero is shown as a man who's 'burdened' by numerous sisters. Sigh. Can one summon a djinn to please exorcise this notion from our filmmakers?
Thunintha Pin, directed by Sarjun, is on the rasa of 'veeram' or 'bravery'. The film documents a young paramilitary officer's (Atharva) encounter with a Naxal (Kishore). Quite like Raavanan, we're meant to understand the righteousness of the Naxal cause and question the brute force of the state. But the film hinges too much on telling rather than showing, with the Naxal struggle explained in generic terms. There's hardly anything that sticks, and you don't feel for either character.
Anjali plays Muthulakshmi, the officer's pregnant wife, and is impactful in the few scenes that she appears in. The rest of it, however, is shallow and unsteady, much like the officer's aim.
You either buy into Gautham Menon's brand of love (shringara)â€” bikes, dialogues about the 'moment I saw her (in this case, Prayaga Martin)', excessively long descriptions of someone's appearance, pretty clothes and guitarsâ€” or you don't. I fall in the latter category and Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, as a result, was excruciating despite the music.
Suriya looks too old to be playing a young and hep musician (and I say this as a Suriya fan who appreciates his eyes as much as the heroine does, I promise). He is onstage as a Grammy Award winner and starts narrating the love story that inspired his music. Erm ok. The story is told in flashback, exactly like every other Gautham Menon film. Some of the dialogues had me cringing: "When you meet a woman and she says exactly the things your mother says, you know you're a goner, hook, line and sinker." I wonder what rasa Freud must be feeling in his grave. There's nothing new in this soap bubble. You either feel the 'vibe' or not.
Navarasa is the film industry's effort to contribute to the welfare of its members, and that is indeed a laudable goal. But considering the talent on board, you can't help but feel a little cheated. I'm going with the 'Ah, well' rasa on this one.
Navarasa is now streaming on Netflix.
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.