Much like the Bollywood original, Nenjuku Needhi turns oppression into spectacle and denies dignity to the very people it claims to represent.

Screengrab from Nenjuku NeedhiCourtesy/ZeeStudios
Flix Film Review Friday, May 20, 2022 - 20:18

Since Nenjuku Needhi is a remake of the Anubhav Sinha directorial Article 15, there isn’t too much by way of spoilers I can drop in this review, so fair warning. Like the Bollywood original, the remake, follows the story of a caste-privileged police officer transferred to a remote posting. He finds himself having to solve the gang-rape and murder of two minor Dalit girls in the face of a hostile law enforcement system completely in the grips of the local dominant caste. Udhayanidhi Stalin steps into the role of Ayushmann Khurrana’s caste-blind but 'honest' police officer. Nenjuku Needhi is more or less a faithful remake, story-wise, of Article 15. Too faithful, in fact.

The first ten minutes are a graphic, detailed description of atrocities: A government school cook fired for her caste, the food thrown away because it is 'polluted', fake cases about Dalit men 'luring upper caste women', segregated cremation grounds, and finally, the horrific case Udhayanidhi Stalin’s Vijayraghavan needs to solve. And it recreates one of the single most criticised scenes from Article 15 — that of a sanitation worker rising dramatically out of the sewer, covered in black effluence. At this point, the choral music in the background feverishly works to ensure you understand how tragic what you’re watching is. To put it simply, like Article 15, Nenjuku Needhi turns oppression into spectacle and denies dignity.

In the wake of these deeply questionable scenes, Vijayraghavan makes his entry into the story. Article 15 was set in Uttar Pradesh with reference to the Baduan gangrape and murder. Nenjukku Needhi is set somewhere in Pollachi. Right, well… Like his Bollywood counterpart, Vijayraghavan is just as clueless about separate cups at tea shops or segregated living. He takes it all in with impatient disdain. As far as Udhayanidhi’s acting goes, there’s little to fault. Partly because the film is a remake and partly because of his position in the DMK perhaps, Vijayraghavan is a far more muted hero-cop than Tamil cinema is used to offering us. He gives us a solid performance, even convincing us of his earnestness occasionally. Only, he seems to be earnestly building a political image for himself. Every other line, though not delivered with the usual bombast of Kollywood cop dramas, is a Statement. With an uppercase S, yes. Clearly signalling where his party affiliation lies, and one wonders if also to cement his next-gen leadership credibility.

There are carefully manufactured references to Hindi imposition, the National Education Policy (NEP), Periyarism, Ambedkar, jabs at the AIADMK, and NEET; to the point of asking if director Arunraja Kamaraj was trying to fit the entire DMK election manifesto into the plot line of Article 15. The opposition to issues, such as NEET or Hindi imposition, are justifiable, without doubt. But therein lies the conflict. Why amongst addressing these dire concerns, can the film not get representation right?

Despite the superficial similarities, there is a stark difference in the detailed charecterisation of Udhayanidhi’s Vijayraghavan to distinguish him from Ayushmann Khurrana’s Ayan Ranjan. Yet, that effort isn’t put into the remake’s version of Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) — the Dalit, anti-caste activist, based on Chandrashekar Azad in Article 15. Aari Arujunan does an admirable job as Kumaran who, like Nishad, is brave, outspoken and assertive. Aari tries to infuse his character with a tormented intensity and swag, but he mostly seems to have been left to figure out Kumaran on his own. Ultimately, for no fault of Aari’s, Kumaran is a shallow rehash of Nishad simply because so little thought has gone into creating a localised, believable character sketch for him. Kumaran too, like Nishad, seems disposable. It’s these aspects that seriously cast doubt on the sincerity of the film’s countless references to Dr Ambedkar and Periyar.

There is one more character who can leave many watchers with conflicting feelings. A young doctor who secretly works with Vijayraghavan to ensure justice is done, called Anitha. Another character helpfully lets us know she was a reserved-category medical student. “Doctor Anitha, I am with you,” Vijayraghavan tells her firmly. The real-life Anitha’s suicide galvanised the protests in Tamil Nadu against NEET. True, the DMK appears to be keeping its election promise to try and get exemption for the state’s medical students from the centralised medical entrance exam. The real-life Anitha never got to be a doctor; later in the film Doctor Anitha stylishly shrugs on her white-coat and looks the casteist character who had mocked the “merit of her medical degree” dead in the eyes. It could be intended as a powerful statement on the whole, yet it leaves you queasy, because the sequence is also recognisably a political gimmick.  

Suresh Chakravarthy might be one of the saving graces of Nenjuku Needhi. He takes on Manoj Pahwa’s role of the corrupt, casteist, Brahmin police officer, who seeks to undermine the investigation at every stage. But the character Manoj played with cartoonish, unconvincing villainy, Suresh recreates with a terrifying menace. His malice and his bigotry are told to you through such a layered performance, it’s easy to forget that it’s an actor playing a part. Shivani Rajasekhar, too, might be one of the better aspects of the film, within the narrow space given to her character Kurunji — the fiercely outspoken sister of one the gangrape and murder victims. The actors do their damndest to keep you engaged with a film whose politics are exhausting.

There is an early sequence when Vijayraghavan’s wife (Tanya Ravichandran) tells him sharply that a time has to come when people stop waiting for heroes. And yet, Nenjuku Needhi, spends the rest of its run-time recreating the exact same tone-deaf, saviour-complex, trauma-spectacle that Article 15 was.

 

The film released in theatres on May 20.

 
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