A scene from J Baby
A scene from J Baby

J Baby review: Urvashi dazzles in a story that tries too hard to pack a punch

‘J Baby’ is a family saga that has several hits, but eventually loses steam to its own meandering plot that has too much to say.
J Baby (Tamil)(2 / 5)

Today is Women’s Day. That means a lot of meaningless epithets, pinkwashing, and not enough feminism. So a film on motherhood coming out on March 8 wouldn’t normally elicit too much surprise. But, director Suresh’s J Baby is not the conventional Kollywood fare that deifies being a mother, without thinking of the emotional cost of parenting as a woman. The filmmaker presents us with Baby, played by a fantastic Urvashi. She struggles with a mental health condition her working-class family are baffled by until she goes missing. J Baby is essentially a family saga that has several hits, but eventually loses steam to its own meandering plot that has too much to say.

The film opens to Senthil (Maaran) and Shankar (Attakathi Dinesh) being summoned to a police station in Chennai and being informed that their mother Baby is in Kolkata. The brothers, who’d assumed that Baby is with relatives, set off on a panicked search. In Kolkata, multiple events get in the way of their reunion with their mother. Senthil and Shankar have an ongoing feud and barely speak to each other anymore. But, however belligerently, they have to join forces to find Baby. The chaos their broken relationship creates is both amusing and touching, as is how they each handle their anger at each other. 

Urvashi easily establishes her veteran status as an actor, switching effortlessly between comedy and the challenges of her condition. The film also attempts to establish the gaps in access to mental health care and how overwhelmed families, with little understanding, tend to abandon those who need support.

Dinesh is, as always, completely reliable and solid in his role. You understand that this is a man weary from the upheavals in his life trying to make amends. In comparison, Maaran has a grouse with the whole world and is always a hair’s breadth away from railing at anyone he perceives to have slighted him. 

Yet, the film falters with pacing issues and a script that could do with tighter edits. The attempts to tell Baby’s backstory in flashbacks becomes too unwieldy for the director to control and you’re left exhausted from trying to keep up. While the film goes into how public healthcare fares in terms of providing support for mental illnesses to an extent, it doesn’t contend with what people like Baby need beyond a sweet plot ending.

The story also takes its time to bring in Urvashi, waiting like Kollywood formula films to give the actor the mass entry she deserves. While this delayed introduction increases the excitement to finally see an actor of Urvashi’s calibre on screen, it ultimately feels like a let down. 

J Baby wants to tell a tale centring Urvashi without exclusively falling back on her comedic timing alone, but the film makes you wonder what exactly it wants you to think of Urvashi. Is she the “baddest girl alive” Roshan Jamrock and Tony Britto’s ‘Little Bit Crazy’, like the film’s title track tells you she is? Or is she someone with a serious condition that needs a lot of help? Yes, maybe she’s a bit of both, but the film doesn’t do enough to establish that. Instead, for all its empathy rare for Kollywood, it ultimately takes the easier route of leaving the ending to the Amma-sentiment rather than ask how a family as economically vulnerable as Baby’s is going to be able to provide the support she requires. With a public healthcare system that is so faulty, the usual response is to simply lock away the mentally ill. 

By the end of the film, you wonder if an actor like Urvashi has been wasted. The delay in bringing her into the story and the piecemeal manner in which her backstory is provided to us don’t do enough to forge a connection with her character. It instead feels like these elements are thrown together in the hope they stick with us because many of us have an emotional tie to the actor whom we’ve grown up watching on screen.

Yet, Baby also defies Kollywood’s traditional mother roles as paragons of virtue who are allowed no self-interest or care for themselves. More than anything else, this is a film based on a true story. In 2015, a woman like Baby did indeed go missing from Chennai and was tracked down in Kolkata. Paying homage to the real-life story, J Baby even stars someone who was integral in bringing the real-life Baby home. But the surprise elements don’t do enough to keep you completely engaged. 

J Baby has a lot of heart and a lot to say. If only it could have decided better what to leave out, would it have told a more well constructed story.

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 producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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