Let’s talk about voiceovers. There is no filmmaker who indulges in them more than Gautham Vasudev Menon. So much that even before the film – Enai Noki Paayum Thota – begins, you hear Subramania Bharathi’s Pirar Vaada in Menon’s voice. You know, right? The one with the punchline. No one can deny its potency. It’s an afterthought, like an “up yours” to his detractors, for having finally managed the release of the film, almost three years after Maruvaarthai became a sensation on YouTube. It is clearly designed to be an elegant riposte but falls a bit flat, especially when two other doyens of the industry have already used those words for far better/compelling moments in their films. Like a lot of moments in Menon’s films, it ends up as derivative. Gautham Menon takes the term autobiographical to whole new heights. He can’t just display his name under the writer/director credits. He has to begin the story with the voiceover from Raghu (Dhanush) and end it with “naa”, and there flashes the director’s name. I did wonder, why not just name the hero Gautham? The narration is never ending. Raghu goes on and on about where he is, what state he is in, what he is thinking and what everyone else is feeling and doing. At times, it is not just Raghu and the voiceover. Raghu is arrested by the Mumbai cops and is in the car with them, being taken to the police station. As the car enters the gate, one of the cops says, “pahunch gaye” (we’ve reached). Am I watching a film or part of a table read?
It’s not just the lazy filmmaking. It is ultimately a disservice to the story – any story – being told through the visual medium. The maladroit way in which moments and shots are conceived, the way it distracts you from actors and objects on screen. Filmmakers and critics have studied the Kuleshov Effect enough to discern context from actors’ faces and the way scenes are edited. Now imagine using Kuleshov’s image of a bowl of soup and Gautham Menon’s voice going, “Ivan Mosjoukine looked at the soup. He was hungry and needed something warm for his throat”. Or Mosjoukine’s own voice in first person singular, to stay true to Menon’s style. But when your actor is Dhanush, it’s really a criminal idea to confine him to voiceovers. Dhanush is mostly sleepwalking here, as he should be, this is not the guy from Sullan. We know the film is releasing after a long time but even during the development stages, the actor in the star had long forsaken that mode. There is clear fissure between the actor and the director here, telling of the place they are in, in their respective careers.
Menon made his name with a particular brand of characters and romance. They were young and upper-class alright but their romance was real and battle tested. His stronger films like Neethane En Ponvasantham, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya and Vaaranam Aayiram tracked people’s changing lives and perspectives, focusing on them through their fractured times. They had a journey, they grew up, learned and unlearned through experiences and relationships. They never suffered from tunnel vision, their paths always crossed and wavered, and met again. The details were at the edges of their narratives, we always had to dig in to enjoy some of his screenplays, which were rewarding at times. Where is that complexity? Where is that messiness? Now, it’s a question of both his audience having grown up and Menon refusing to. His stories and screenplays are all over the place, his genre mashups don’t work and he continues to rely on that polished take on romance that Tamil cinema has long grown out of. Enai Noki Paayum Thota gets self-referential at times. It even hits you with some deja vu for the film was shot at the same college as some of his previous films. This shtick is dead, and from some self-deprecating lines in the voiceover, we realize that Menon knows. When Mani Ratnam’s brand was getting stale, the director moved on to riskier subjects. His filmmaking is still solid but he saw that the landscape of Tamil cinema had changed and concluded that you either change or you die. He still misses more than he hits but the self-awareness is there for all to see. Gautham Menon seems to be on borrowed time here. The bullet has only hit the buckle. For now. I hope he finds that mojo. As those Bharathiyar’s lines go, we can all ask for some boons.