Stories have the power to transport us to worlds that we may never find ourselves in. In Nitham Oru Vaanam, debutant filmmaker Ra Karthik tells a simple but relevant story through a protagonist who, at a young age, gets smitten by this transportable nature of stories. It cannot get more meta, for Karthik’s story itself feels like a fairytale told on a cosy winter night.
Karthik’s protagonist is Arjun (Ashok Selvan), a 20-something man who has always loved to just sit with his books and imagine himself to be a character from them. However, he isn’t as keen on opening up to the world outside of himself. To everyone around him, including his parents, he comes across as an irritable but timid man with compulsive perfectionism and germophobia.
Nitham Oru Vaanam
The way we are introduced to Arjun’s world is rather straightforward, but for good reasons. On his way to Kolkata, Arjun gets stranded at a bus stand in Bhubaneswar, where he meets Shubathra (Ritu Varma), a liberated soul on her own journey. They meet, and Arjun begins to tell his story. They say that the cuts are deep after your first fall from a bicycle and your first heartbreak. We learn that after one such heartbreak, Arjun’s life had hit a pause. His struggles with how the world around him changed post this are written quite sensitively.
Now, this is quite a familiar setup, isn’t it? It’s a travelogue feature about a heartbroken man on a soul-searching journey. But what’s special about Nitham Oru Vaanam is that despite it being just that at its barebones, it grows to be bigger. How it goes from one point to another stands out. A doctor friend of Arjun, played by Abhirami, gives him two diaries that tell two short love stories about two couples. Arjun begins to imagine himself as the leading men character in these stories, and in the first story, he is Veera, a typical ‘college don’ we see in Tamil cinema. The story follows Veera’s against-all-odds romance with his junior collegemate Meenakshi (Shivathmika Rajashekar, who is impressive in her Tamil debut). Initially, this might come across as a rather uninventive short story that rides only on emotional beats, but the payoff clears all the clouds.
The second story follows Prabha, an innocent heartbroken man, and Mathi — played by an electric Aparna Balamurali in a dynamite of a role — a young woman who is adamant that she will never get married to the boy her father (Azhagam Perumal) chooses for her. The humour, the unusual nature of the story, and the brilliant exchanges between Mathi and her father make this the stand-out portion of the film. Here comes the catch: Arjun is left with many unanswered questions after reading these stories, and Abhirami reveals that these are real-life stories based on people she knows and that if he wants, he can travel to Kolkata and to Himachal Pradesh to get his answers. Arjun’s perfectionist mind is now thrown to war against his nature to be in a comfortable shell.
There begins the journey, and so do the snags. Arjun seems to be cut from the same cloth as Fahadh Faasil’c character from the Malayalam movie North 24 Kaatham, another travel movie that had him deal with OCD. There, we got moments that showed him the experiences he was missing out on, and though there is an effort to flesh these out in Nitham..., they are lost in time. Further, the film also seems to uphold the extrovert ideal, which makes the arc of the protagonist seem a bit caricaturish as extraversion and introversion are known to operate on a spectrum. The lead characters here, however, operate only on the extremes.
But credit to Karthik for making a good travel movie that gets the point — about the need to explore life, and what travelling teaches one — across realistically. Quite often, such movies come under criticism for being too elitist, but the travel in this film is simple, and more of a catalyst for the journey that Arjun takes within himself.
It is also wonderful to see how Karthik uses Arjun’s ability to imagine the stories to the advantage of the film-watching experience. That is, we know that the characters Arjun reads the stories are what he imagined them to be and that these characters might be starkly different in real life. This caters to quite a few surprises.
Despite minor flaws in the character arc, Ashok truly shines as Arjun, Veera, and Prabha. He has such a likeable presence on screen, and the distinctness he brings to the three roles ensures we can’t get enough of him despite the lion’s share of screen time he gets. Ritu Varma is also wonderful to watch as Shuba, a character that refuses to be just a narration tool.
Nitham Oru Vaanam feels like a fresh dose of hope. Be it Vidhu Ayyanna’s simple but elegant frames or Gopi Sundar’s music that doesn’t distract one from the flow of the film, a lot comes together well to ensure the film is as gentle as a breeze and yet as deep as the ocean. Above everything else, Nitham Oru Vaanam is a tribute to the kids within us who saw towels as capes, and not many films manage to do that as elegantly as this one.
Nitham Oru Vaanam is currently running in theatres