Arumuga Kumar's Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren is an unusual choice for a directorial debut. The black comedy (with most of the characters dressed in black) begins with a voiceover (Vijay Sethupathi) taking us through the vastness of the universe and establishing just where the story is about to unfold - a little village in Andhra Pradesh called Yama Singapuram.
The director thus begins by emphasising the littleness of human life and deeds, which sets the tone for the subversion of the usual tropes of Tamil cinema. But, it takes a while for Arumuga Kumar to establish where he's going with the film, and for a good part, we're left wondering if there's a point to this bizarre drama.
Vijay Sethupathi plays Yaman, the leader of a tribe that 'honourably' robs people for a living. He has two sidekicks, Purushotaman and Narasimhan (Ramesh Thilak and Rajkumar) who accompany him on his adventures. Yaman's life intersects with that of three college students - Sowmya (Niharika Konidela), Harish (Gautham Karthik), and Sathish (Daniel Annie Pope) - and well, the rest of it plays out.
Vijay Sethupathi, despite his head accessories and outlandish costume, underplays his role as usual. He's funny whether he says "Yei chi po" or walks around with strange wigs. He will probably manage to be entertaining even if he's just staring at the walls, so this is no surprise. But Arumuga Kumar uses him more like a talented contestant in a fancy dress competition than a character in his film. Nevertheless, it's great to see him and Gayathrie Shankar, who played the bride in the howlarious Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, share the same frame again.
The plot perhaps looked funnier on paper than when translated to the screen. The problem is that nearly every character in the film is over-the-top, and they speak in the same way - screaming through their dialogues. It looks too deliberate to be funny.
Gautham Karthik's Harish is pretty annoying in the first half - he's written as an impish, annoying cool dude who is...did I say annoying already? But he improves considerably in the second half - maybe because he doesn't wear his shades as much - eliciting some laughs. Yaman calls him 'loosu payyan' and that struck me as an accurate description - he's the male version of the 'loosu ponnu' heroine we usually see on the screen.
To its credit, ONNPS is one of those rare Tamil films where a woman's “no” actually means something. The film takes a familiar trajectory on consent, trying to manipulate the characters on screen and the audience into believing that a good man's relentless ‘love’ is enough to override a woman's “no”, but takes a surprising and welcome turn. VS is probably the only ‘mass’ hero today who'd be willing to risk his ‘manliness’ by doing such scenes.
The women characters in the film, who strike you as horrendously silly in the first half, get some dignity in the second half. The film, in fact, saves itself because of the last 40 minutes or so where Arumuga Kumar whips up mega serial-level melodrama but punctures it casually. Thanks to Niharika and the fact that much of the film is set in Andhra, we get references to Telugu stars and films - how much of that the Tamil audience will get is anyone's guess.
Justin Prabhakaran's music is over-the-top, just like the visuals are. ONNPS is an attempt to do something fresh and original in a crowded space with star vehicles and horror comedies dominating the market. It's a decent debut, but the film needed some more thought to bring it all together.
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.