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‘Nenjam Marappathillai’ movie review: Beautifully disjointed

It is funny that Selvaraghavan’s fascination for Christianity and Christian imagery has never been a focal point of film discussions. In his directorial debut, Vinoth (from Kadhal Kondein) grew up in a Christian orphanage, managed by a character played by Nagesh. Later, Selvaraghavan flirted with and, to a large extent, wrote the character of Anita (from 7G Rainbow Colony) like an Angel — as if she was commissioned to fulfil a bloody curse. Apart from the here and there references I may have missed in his other films, it was high time he made a full-fledged film with a Catholic background that he has been threatening to make.

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Selvaraghavan’s fascination seems to stem from the basic concept of sins and sinners. Nenjam Marappathillai, too, to a large extent, is a film about sins and sinners. But more about that later. I respect filmmakers who try, at least try, to invert genre conventions to make it as their own. So, in a way, Selvaraghavan has earned my respect — purely in terms of what he has tried to do with the genre and thus retaining his originality as a filmmaker, whether for good or worse is a different issue.

Cohesiveness is not something that you would associate Selvaraghavan with in the post-Aayirathil Oruvan phase, with the notable exception being Mayakkam Enna. His films have the tendency to jump from one point to another, one idea to another, in a disorderly fashion — which some may argue is what made the Brand Selvaraghavan work. Their individual parts, if you remove and look at them in isolation, are fascinating, sometimes mouthwatering, yes. But do they come together as a whole? We are not sure. In fact, Selvaraghavan too seems to wonder about this paradox.

Nenjam Marappathillai
  • Cast: SJ Suryah, Regina Cassandra and Nadita Swetha
  • Director: Selvaraghavan
  • Storyline: In order to support the orphanage she grew up in, Maryam takes up the job of a caretaker in an affluent household, without knowing what she is getting into.

The individual parts of Nenjam Marappathillai, particularly the way he has imagined Maryam (Regina Cassandra. Although I thought what would someone like Andrea Jeremiah have brought to the character) and Ramsay aka Ramasamy (SJ Suryah, a wonderfully over-the-top performance, sometimes taking the character’s eccentricity to a jarring proportion), picturing them as an allegory to God and Satan, are the most intriguing aspect. It is intriguing in what could have become, rather than what ends up being.

The film opens with choir music, of course, bringing a sense of calmness to the chaos that is about to unfold. Maryam (notice the name), an orphan who grows up in a Christian home, gets an offer to look after a child in an affluent household. She is warned by the sister, after all, who pays a caretaker ₹65 grand? But this is what Maryam tells her: “It is a call from Jesus.” This seemingly trivial piece of information largely helps us in understanding where Maryam comes from and her tendency to be protective of Rishi, the child of Ramsay and his wife (Nandita Swetha). She looks at Rishi as her own, like a baby Jesus — if one were to go by Maryam’s name.

Maryam’s tenderness with boy pales in comparison to the coldness she receives from Ramsay and his wife. We are not sure if it is privilege or the fact that Selvaraghavan’s characters, in general, behave in an eccentric manner, but Nandita Swetha comes across as a loud, (irritable) hothead and Ramsay seems dissociated from the world — at first.

We learn more about the couple, apart from the fact that there is something macabre right from the start and the fact that they look straight out of The Adam’s Family. Ramsay is the perfect man. Or, he wishes to be the perfect man. He wants everything in order. He shaves every day before going to work and brags about his branded tuxedos. We later come to know that Ramsay is a facade. His is a rags-to-riches story; he corrects when someone reminds him of his actual name: Ramasamy (“Call my Ramsay.”) He claims to have worked his way up. He fell for his boss’ daughter and he married for financial status.

These contextual information don’t help us in picturing them together. What helps is Maryam. The servants tell Maryam that Ramsay is like MGR, a giver, and madam is the bad woman. We unearth the person behind Ramsay and his animalistic urge: he suffers from a high temperature (“soodu”) more inwards. Ramsay lusts after Maryam because his wife’s cannot perform sex. Reason? We don’t know. But this is the central conflict that shifts the narrative gear. From this point onwards, Maryam becomes the lamb that the wolf Ramsay is after.

You know there is going to be sexual assault and rape, but Selvaraghavan refrains from showing it (it’s more suggestive). You wished he displayed similar sensitivity in writing Ramsay, whose coolness is a problem. Look at the way ‘En Pondati Oorukku Poita’ has been inducted into the film and you will know what I mean. The problem is, it is not infidelity to begin with.

But Selvaraghavan does something unimaginable with Maryam. Imagine this: he intercuts the sexual crime to an image of Christ on the cross. It gave me goosebumps. It is as if to imply that Maryam is bearing the cross for being a woman. And when does this happen? Yes, on a Good Friday (Yuvan Shankar Raja’s gives a fantastic score. The lullaby takes it to another level.) For a moment, I caught my breath and began to wonder what Selvaraghavan could do to a film like Love Exposure.

But Nenjam Marappathillai loses its grip in the second half (refer previous paragraph about Selva and cohesiveness). Because, scenes pile up and they tend to get more repetitive. The tonal shift to a black comedy of sorts, with a throwback to ‘Chella Killigalam’, which, by the way, is a riot, doesn’t get the desired results.

Ramsay, for the most part, remains in the dark until we learn a little more than we should. Which makes him a Satan or a demon, if you may. Now, the film suddenly gets hyperactive and becomes an ambitious tale about the battle between God and Satan — I loved the Crouching Tiger kind of climatic choreography that it gets.

The problem with Selvaraghavan in the post-Aayirathil Oruvan phase is, he seems to have been making only half of what he envisioned in the first place — if that is a fair assumption. The other half still resides in his head. How we wish to see the other half.

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