Natchathiram Nagargiradhu review: Pa Ranjith lights a spark to defy old ideas of love

Natchathiram Nagargiradhu holds an unflinching mirror to how caste, class, gender and sexuality are used to protect endogamy in romance.
Dushera Vijayan in Nachithiram Nagargiradhu Trailer
Dushera Vijayan in Nachithiram Nagargiradhu Trailer

Can love be ‘universal and pure’? Is desire as easy as being drawn towards another? Or are all our interactions inherently political? Director Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargirathu rips open trite definitions of romance, laying bare the darkness and absurdities that lie beneath. Set in Puducherry, with Dushara Vijayan, Kalaiarasan and Kalidas Jayaram in lead roles, the film holds an unflinching mirror to how caste, class, gender and sexuality are used to bestow or revoke the validity of romantic love between people.

Dushara, Kalai and Kalidas play theatre actors with a small troupe. The film sets off with the troupe trying to decide what their next play is going to be about. Discussions turn to each of their interpretations of love and desire, and very soon, conflict slips in. Here is where the director seems to indulge in a little bit of clever wordplay. Kalai’s character Arjunan comes from a dominant land-holding caste. He starts passing snide remarks about “naadaga kaathal” (loosely translated as drama-love, or fake love), a prejudiced narrative used in Tamil Nadu against Dalit men who dress stylishly in jeans and sunglasses to allegedly “lure upper-caste women." This deliberately vindictive representation, not unlike the myth of ‘love jihad’, has found its way from electoral politics into movies like Draupathi. In Natchathiram, Ranjith flips the idea of “naadaga kaathal” into an actual theatre play about love. The troupe’s director decides that their next play is going to be one that offers a progressive critique of how love is held hostage by heterosexuality and caste endogamy.

The troupe is composed of people from various castes, genders and sexualities. Their lived experiences with romance, the way society looks upon each of their loves is also vastly different, Ranjith makes a point to show.

Dushara Vijayan, who played the widely-loved Mariamma in Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai returns as Rene. Rene is perfectly summed up in a searingly beautiful sequence with Arjunan: “Are you a communist?” he asks, both in awe and slightly dazed by the ferocity of Rene’s politics. “I’m an Ambedkarite,” she shoots back with a jaunty smile, while savouring a plate of beef fry. 

The process of how each of us come into our personal politics is a significant aspect of Natchathiram. There is a point when Arjunan has been deeply offensive to his colleagues, and later, ashamed of himself, he decides to leave. It’s Rene who insists he stays. “He should face each of us. Face his mistakes. If he goes away, he will never learn,” she says. Rene, the staunch Ambedkarite, recognises that the process of politicisation is one of acknowledging one's own bigotry and misinformation. It’s a process of unlearning and accountability. And finally, it is a lifelong progression towards something more radical. So when she later throws open the theatre doors painted with a large Buddha and Arjunan follows her out, the scene strongly recalls the lyrics, “Neeye oli, neeye vazhi” (be your own light, be your own path) from Sarpatta.

Kalai owns his role as the kind of toxic cis-het male who many, many of us have dealt with. He is misogynist, casteist, homophobic and transphobic. His ideas about love are excruciatingly filmy. His transition away from such darkness is messy. There are multiple times he’s so thoroughly exasperating, you find yourself muttering irritably at the screen: a testament to the actor’s potential. 

Dushara’s Rene is someone whom caste has followed around her whole life. Which is how she explains her stylishness, her sass, her defiance and anger, but also her closely guarded vulnerability. Rene points out that as a Dalit woman, this is the only way she knows how to be. Dushara’s acting however feels uneven at times. There are large portions she absolutely shines in, but others where she comes off as artificial, lacking the easy aplomb with which she pulled off Mariamma. She is still a joy to watch on screen, and a relief from the pale-skinned heroines who Kollywood routinely casts as the ideal woman. This is only Dushara’s second such lead role, and I fervently hope to see her continue to make her mark in the Tamil industry.

Kalidas Jayaram’s Iniyan, Rene’s once-partner, provides another interesting insight into masculinity. The actor manages to both portray the parody of a Kollywood-type jilted lover when needed, and yet have flashes of self-awareness that flesh out his character. 

Another fan-favourite from Sarapatta to return is Shabeer Kallarakkal aka Dancing Rose. It’s as if the director foreshadows the mockery the film is likely to receive from some quarters. Shabeer’s character is someone who slips into the film with such an otherworldly menace, it’s hard to tell if he’s human or something more terrifying. 

As in each of his previous movies, Natchathiram marks a tonal shift in Ranjith’s filmmaking. At times, he sticks to a direct narrative style — until the story suddenly, through the drama troupe’s play, becomes dreamlike and abstract.

Music director Tenma’s score fits seamlessly into the events of Nachathiram. Whether it’s the introduction song ‘Rangaratinam’ that helps set the tone for the film, or the compelling sweetness of the title track ‘Natchathiram Nagargiradhu’, voiced by singer-songwriter Arivu and Sharanya Srinivas, each of them is unforgettable. The second is particularly a surprising shift for Arivu, whom we’ve mostly heard as a hip-hop artist. Natchathiram is Tenma’s second time as a film’s music composer and he leaves us with an album just as memorable as that of Irandam Ullagaporin Kadaisi Gundu.

If there was one aspect that I felt could have offered a lot more, it is the representation of LGBTQIA+ politics. This is perhaps where the film is most lacking. Ranjith wants to register his solidarity in Natchathiram very firmly, but a story must also go beyond solidarity. To talk about queer love and LGBTQIA+ experiences specifically, it would have been better if the film had been co-written by an LGBTQIA+ person. Without that, several of the characters sound two-dimensional, though the actors give their best. Natchathiram is one of the few Tamils films to attempt a progressive representation, so from Ranjith I hope for more.

Ultimately, Ranjith leaves you not with a simplistic happily ever after, but something far more essential: a spark of defiance, so that we may remember to keep on resisting

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