If you are a Vijay Sethupathi fan and have often wondered why he has starred in yet another terrible film which an actor of his calibre should not have signed, Seethakaathi may offer some answers. Director Balaji Tharaneetharan's second release after the hilarious Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom is a satirical take on the Tamil film industry. And those of us who've cringed in our seats for many unbelievably bad star vehicles, and wondered if the director's sole intention was to slow torture us to death, would completely get what Balaji wants to say through Seethakaathi.
When we first see Aadhimoolam Ayya, the character played by Vijay Sethupathi, he's a child in a Lava-Kusa play in the 1940s. Then we see him as a youth dressed as Kannagi, then Satyavan. He plays an angry old man taking on the government, before turning into a truculent Aurangzeb in the new millennium. All of this happens onstage and the dialogues are in literary Tamil. This isn't a conventional hero introduction and it is a big risk to take, considering mainstream films are supposed to begin with a bang, let alone this s-l-o-w opening.
But then, Seethakaathi is a protest against such mainstream films, so it's only befitting that the film does away with such a beginning. As a theatre artiste, Aadhimoolam is witness to the dwindling interest in the art form. From a time when the hall was full of people applauding him, now there are only a few half-heartedly responding to his pathos-laden monologues. Vijay Sethupathi usually speaks like Vijay Sethupathi in all his films - irrespective of the character he plays - and though this never gets boring, his dialogue delivery in these portions of Seethakaathi is a pleasant surprise.
It was revealed a few days before the release that Vijay Sethupathi is present for less than an hour in the film. This is true, but his absence is what structures the film. Perhaps Balaji was inspired by all the interviews given by "humble" actors who claim that it is all "iraivan arul" that they're able to act like this? Without giving away too much, Seethakathi sets up a unique premise that promises a rollicking ride - what if anyone could become a superstar (the intermission, by the way, is announced through the SUPERSTAR font), thanks to a supernatural phenomenon? Hint: The title comes from a Tamil proverb you should look up if you are curious and don't mind spoilers.
It also offers one a ringside view of what happens behind the scenes, on the sets of a film - and the difference between a good actor and a bad one. Anyone who has watched Balaji's first film would know that he's a genius when it comes to humour through repetition. If people in Naduvula had to repeat the same things over and over again because of the lead character who has short term memory loss, in Seethakaathi, it happens because the actor in question is completely clueless about what to do.
As you watch Sundar (Bagavathi Perumal) struggling to get his hero Saravanan (Rajkumar) to just turn casually and give a reaction when he sees his crush from school days (which Vijay Sethupathi did so admirably in 96 recently), you feel like you must unleash the milk of human compassion within you every time you write a review. You are tempted to award every film that hits the screens a generous five stars, in recognition of the blood tears that the director must have shed to get the film to the screen, never mind the hero's bad wig and the heroine's blank face.
However, though these potshots keep coming (there's another hilarious sequence with Sunil, who plays a producer turned wannabe star), the film doesn't quite come together. Perhaps it's because we know so little of Aadhimoolam Ayya. Other than the fact that he loves acting and his grandson, there's nothing much we know of him. Govind Vasantha's beautiful music helps create the atmosphere for these scenes, but one wishes that Balaji had given us more about Ayya to hold on to and understand. The threads he gives us are too few for us to knit together a clearer image.
And we know even lesser about Ayya's family, the people who drive his actions. Archana, who plays his wife, for instance, barely speaks and wears a pained expression that looks copy-pasted from frame to frame. Ditto for the daughter.
For that matter, none of the women characters in the film speaks much, including Gayathrie, Parvathi Nair and Remya Nambessaan, who make cameo appearances. The TV panelists, the members of the public who are interviewed, the crew on the film sets, the producers, the judge (a superb J Mahendran) and the lawyers - all of them are male. The only women who speak to some length are the stage actors in two instances, but then, they're playing roles, not speaking as themselves. If Seethakaathi intended to land punches on mainstream cinema, it's quite disappointing that the director has followed the same format when it comes to the treatment of women's roles.
You keep waiting for the film to take the wackiness of its central idea further but that never happens. Considering its lengthy runtime of close to 3 hours (is that in defiance of new age cinema too?), Seethakaathi could have done much more with its fun premise. The questions it wishes to raise are important ones - can art ever be business? If art must pay, then must its quality be compromised? Or can we do away with art entirely, like the arrogant Arungzeb, whom Aadhimoolam once famously played? The answers that the film offers, however, are too black and white, too easily divided into good and bad. For a satire, Seethakaathi stops well short of drawing blood and is content to merely open its jaws in the threat that it will - and that makes it a good comedy which is several notches below greatness.
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.