An arrhythmic arrangement of musical notes that eventually becomes an ascending scale; this is how one can picture the tempo of writer-director Shan’s Bommai Nayagi. There’s a sense of disconnect between the scenes that set up the film. We see the complicated dynamics between Velu (Yogi Babu), a worker at a tea shop in Kadalur, and his step-brother Senthil (Aruldoss). Senthil has a soft corner for Velu, but being one of the wealthiest in town means that Senthil gets to rub shoulders with the influential, upper-caste men who wouldn’t like to see Senthil treat Velu as anything other than a lackey. For Velu, his wife Kayalvizhi (Subatra), father (G.M. Kumar), mother, and above all, his daughter Bommai Nayagi (Srimathi) are the world and he is busy gathering money to buy his own stall. Shan uses a song to show the lovely equation between the father and the daughter.
As individual scenes, they cause no trouble, but with the screenplay jumping from one scene to the other, there is a sense of urgency in the storytelling. Before you jump to make up your mind, remember how the musical note ascends to the top, for all these initial issues are made up for. Bommai Nayagi narrates the tale of a difficult fight that a father and a mother are forced to face when their nine-year-old daughter is sexually abused by influential men. A man who had gone about minding only his business until then, Velu’s world crashes down. Everything goes wrong in how the child is tended to post the incident. With his daughter being almost held like a hostage in an ICU ward of a hospital owned by the kin of the accused, and when he realises that even the police are bigoted, Velu turns to Jeeva (Hari Krishnan), a communist party worker who helps the voiceless question injustice.
A lot happens in quick succession in Bommai Nayagi, and you don’t get time to process the type of film you think is coming. Will it use the subject of sexual abuse to elicit an emotional response? Or will it become an action-revenge saga? Bommai Nayagi, however, is unlike anything we’ve come across in the genre and it packs many surprises in its 120-minute runtime.
Bommai Nayagi (Tamil)
While there have been many titles that explored the different facets of injustice and the systematic oppression that some sections of society are subjected to, Bommai Nayagi speaks about ‘justice beyond the courts’. The judiciary is a system of courts meant to uphold justice, but what if the justice ordained by the court isn’t valued by other key parties, like the police? For many voiceless sections of society, the fight never ceases with one verdict; it’s a never-ending one for which they have to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally.
It’s blood-curdling to witness how men would rather stand for pedophiles than for a powerless father whose life is uprooted. With a few twists to a usual straightforward story, writer-director Shan gets enough space to put forth many necessary questions for the oppressed. He also places seeds of a larger narrative here and there as subtexts for a better emotional pay-off. For instance, at three distinct junctures, Bommai Nayagi asks Velu, “Where did you go, dad? You said you would come back soon,” and in each of these instances, you are made to feel something different, something more intense.
In Yogi Babu, Shan finds a dependable actor who pulls off the challenging role of a father and a harmless human who is pushed to the extremes with much ease. Subatra, as always, strikes the right chords with an impressive performance. Child artist Srimathi, meanwhile, is a surprising entrant who delivers well.
Bommai Nayagi isn’t a perfect film. In fact, it does take a lot of cinematic liberties to make its point. It also isn’t a subtle movie by any means — the language is pretty much on the face. Further, the character arc of Senthil takes a rather unconvincing turn as well. Some subversions, in the end, seem jarring. But it is an important addition to the arsenal of Neelam Productions, and like the previous films by the banner, gives hope to the people on the justice system, asks people to believe in the goodness among others (like in the party worker Jeeva or Velu’s friend who owns a beef stall), and also asks you to be aware of what all could go wrong even when it seems like the worst has passed.
Above everything, watch out for a goosebumps-inducing moment when Shan states who the real Mother India is, at a time when her identity has been distorted and abused by political extremism.
Bommai Nayagi releases in theatres on February 3