Anand Shankar's bilingual NOTA is that favourite fantasy of filmmakers when it comes to politics - what if a young, dynamic CM replaced the fogies we've grown tired of? Vijay Deverakonda, who is already a star in the Telugu industry, puts his best foot forward in Tamil cinema, cleverly marking his place like a seasoned politician. Thank you to my Tamil brothers and sisters for accepting this newbie, he says at one point. In the film, he's referring to the CM's chair but it's also an appeal to his audience in Tamil Nadu, where he has become phenomenally popular with Arjun Reddy and Geetha Govindam.
After Arjun Reddy, Vijay has been consciously cultivating his image as "rowdy", the man who flouts the rules and does things his way. Whether this construct is desirable for an audience that's already fed to the gills with glorified toxic masculinity is another question. In NOTA, he transforms to be "rowdy CM" as he hops from a booze party to the veshti-white shirt political party headed by his father, Vasudev (Nasser). Anand Shankar has been quick to capitalise on the very real political crisis in the state, the absurd theatre that plays out in the headlines day after day.
The script (written by Shan Karuppuswamy) has liberal references to TN politics - from the transparent white shirts worn by the party cadre, to Vasudev telling them not to bend in subservience to an extent that they mess up his statue because they don't know what his face looks like. Some of the incidents that the voter should never forget, like relief materials being stopped because they don't have the party's sticker, also find their way to the script. In that sense, Anand Shankar has been quite brave to take on the ruling party in the state.
NOTA follows the familiar trajectory of political films with a similar premise. At first Varun (Vijay) is uninterested, then he realises the seriousness of his job (predictably, it has to do with the death of a child). The answer to every political crisis invariably becomes the youth, media, and technology. There's not much of Chanakya or Machiavelli here. Not even Amit Shah. However, NOTA manages to retain our interest by giving us some fresh characters, especially when it comes to the women. Kala, for instance. Sanchana Natarajan plays the role of a politician in the opposition party (inspired by Kanimozhi?) and she's written with just the right amount of ambition, malice and integrity. The actor is spot on, from her styling to her dialogue delivery. Mehreen as Swathi, a journalist, doesn't have much to do but it's a relief that the film doesn't twist itself to create a distracting romance track between her and Varun. There's a stepmother, but she isn't demonised. There's a half-sister and she is someone Varun genuinely loves. The Speaker at the Assembly, who appears only for a few seconds, is a woman. It's these little touches that make NOTA different from the average "mass" film in this category, even if the picturisation of the songs uses women dancers as props in the same way as other films.
Sathyaraj and MS Bhaskar have significant roles to play in the plot and both actors deliver what is required. However, the plot twist involving the former and Vasudev seems unnecessary. Vasudev's emotional response at a revelation made to him is out of character for the crafty, ruthless politician that he's supposed to be. It's also an old-fashioned twist, falling back on ideas of sin and chastity to make a point. While the nexus between "godmen" and politicians is established nicely, the script falters when it comes to Wong's (Priyadarshi Pullikonda) adventure in Panama. For instance, after he's roughed up and nearly killed, we see him chilling by the pool instead of going underground. And is it really so easy to access black money carefully secured in distant lands? It's also disappointing that the man who plays a hired killer has to be Muslim, with the background score underling his religious identity for our benefit. With the level of Islamophobia already prevalent in the country, filmmakers really must be more responsible in how they choose to portray communities on screen.
For a film that hopes to shake up the conscience of the political class and the voters, NOTA doesn't question nepotism enough. Both Kala (whose father is the leader of the opposition) and Varun are the visible faces of their respective parties - the only question is whether they are adequately "trained" to take over the reins of the state. This is perhaps realistic but for a film that sells fantasy, why not explore another path? The film does set up hope for more dignified politics from the younger generation though - that decency is possible even among rivals.
Vijay has tremendous screen presence and whether he's dancing energetically to foot-tapping numbers (music by Sam CS) or delivering blistering speeches, you cannot turn your eyes away. For an actor who doesn't know the language, his lip sync isn't bad at all. Do the kings of Kollywood have reason to worry? Like politics, cinema is a game of thrones and Vijay has staked his claim quite loudly with NOTA.
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.