With just a handful of movies, Selvaraghavan has announced himself a major filmmaker, and it falls on us to look at his latest venture, Irandaam Ulagam, as the (worthy) next instalment in a thematically connected oeuvre as well as a (problematic) standalone film. The former, first. At least for a while, the love story here has its polarities reversed. Earlier in this director’s career, the men drove the movies. They were the actors — the women merely the acted upon. But here, we get going with a “heroine introduction shot,” a mini-action sequence in a faraway world where Varna (Anushka Shetty) bests a fantastic and fearsome creature of the wild. In the process, she even executes a somersault. The film keeps cutting between two love stories, one on this distant planet, the other on earth — it is, in short, both sci-fi and chick flick, spiced with a dash of action-adventure. (Is there another mainstream filmmaker who stomps across genre boundaries as boldly as Selvaraghavan?) No such flourishes await the hero (Arya, who plays Madhu on earth and Maruvan on the other planet). We meet Madhu as he fulfils the traditional heroine-duties.
He may not be shepherding schoolchildren across the road by halting traffic on either side, but he comes close — he volunteers for blood drives and spends his spare time with patients in a hospital. Even on earth, it’s the heroine who makes the first move. Ramya (Anushka Shetty again) falls for Madhu’s soft and kind-hearted nature and decides to tell him she wants to marry him. And like the heroine in one of the early Selvaraghavan films, he shrinks away — he says no.
Selvaraghavan really makes the most complicated love stories. But unlike in his earlier films, the leads are peers. They’re both educated, they’re both “civilised,” and they belong to the same socioeconomic class. This is a drastic change for this filmmaker. The obstacles to love are different — death, distance, perhaps even destiny. He’s steering away from his comfort zones, and it’s thrilling to watch.
But some things haven’t changed — thankfully, in my opinion, and your mileage may vary. The frankness, for instance, with which we appraise the objects of our affection (and in Selvaraghavan’s films, they’re sometimes really objects). But again, the objectified, this time, is the man. In the film’s most quintessentially Selvaraghavan moment, one of Ramya’s girlfriends notes that Madhu may turn out to be the kind of guy who burns her with a cigarette on their wedding night, and then she goes on to evaluate parts of his anatomy, eyes and lips and thighs. And once again, Selvaraghavan gives us a glimpse into his obsession with father figures in a touching and funny scene involving Madhu and his wheelchair-bound father.
How does this father turn up on a scooter in a later scene, around the midway point? This nicely surreal moment sets into motion the quotes we saw at the beginning, about there being many worlds and that we inhabit many selves. The crux of Irandaam Ulagam is frightfully poignant: it deals with a love lost and the efforts to help this lost lover gain love. We should be weeping buckets — I sat there dry-eyed. Which brings us to Irandaam Ulagam as a standalone film. It’s a love story without a shred of genuine passion. Ramya falls for Madhu, and distances herself from him, and then drops hints, and when he picks up on those hints and comes calling, she calls him a porukki (though he’s far from a loafer in the sense the word usually conjures up in a Selvaraghavan movie), and a few minutes later, he’s her “Madhu baby.” As for Varna, she remains indifferent to Maruvan’s overtures and then she comes to hate him for clipping her wings, and then, without us really seeing why, she begins to refer to him as her husband.
Selvaraghavan acknowledges this confusion. He writes a line for Varna about her fluctuating emotions, and he offers visual cues for falling in love (rain on earth, snow on the other planet). But we, the audience, need to feel these things, not just see them or hear about them — and that doesn’t happen. And the leads never catch fire. Anushka Shetty does the warrior-princess duties well enough, but given the vagaries in her character(s), her emotional scenes with her hero(es) just don’t connect. And Arya, with his bland urban-boy looks, is the most unlikely Selvaraghavan hero — imagine Aadhi from Kaadhal Kondain as that film’s protagonist. When a character returns from the dead, you’d think he’d be surprised (I certainly was) — but he plays the moment as though it was inevitable.
He certainly brings physical heft to the part of Maruvan, and I could see why Dhanush, Selvaraghavan’s regular collaborator, wasn’t cast, but I missed him terribly in certain scenes, like the one where Madhu pretends to be in love with Ramya’s professor. Dhanush would have made it a golden moment. Love it or hate it, the film would have come alive. Here, the scene sits still on screen and quietly dies.
Cast: Arya, Anushka Shetty.
Storyline: Two parallel love stories on two planets.
Bottomline: An interesting addition to the director’s oeuvre, but a passionless love story