Dear Karthik Subbaraj
Congratulations on yet another interesting movie. Iraivi is an unusual feminist film, in the sense that it’s seen entirely through the prism of sympathetic male characters. Your men aren’t monsters who drink or cheat on their wives or subject them to torture. They do these things, yes, but… differently.
Arul (SJ Surya) drinks, but only to drown out his sense of failure – he’s a director and his film is in the cans, being held hostage by a sadistic producer. Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) has sex with Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya), and he continues to lust after her after his marriage to Ponni (Anjali, who’s terrific), but it’s a marriage he committed to in a hurry and he still hasn’t reconciled himself to it. And the torture they inflict isn’t the stubbing-a-cigarette-into-the-wife’s-bare-arm variety. It’s more mental than physical.
So we get women who are collateral damage of men being men. And even in a film like this, you deliver a commentary about filmmaking and the artist. All your stories have at their centre a filmmaker, or at least a storyteller. And through them, we seem to hear your voice, your insider jokes, your love for Rajinikanth. You referenced Thillu Mullu in Pizza , Thalapathi in Jigarthanda , and now you have Arul and Michael singing Super Star songs.
Or is that more of an Ilayaraja homage? The reuse of Unnai thaane – first in a scene between Michael and Malarvizhi; later in a scene between Michael and Ponni – is the kind of Easter egg we come to your films for. And despite your note that Iraivi is inspired by the works of K, Balachander, this is really more of an ode to Mani Ratnam, isn’t it? Specifically, Aayidha Ezhuthu .
Am I digressing, Karthik? If I am, I’m just following your style, which is the opposite of simple and linear. As a result, I find your films longer than they need to be. But I suppose they couldn’t be any other way, because you like these shaggy-dog stories that you then embellish with novelistic detail.
Your films have this… density. They’re packed – with characters, with complications, with information doled out in bits and pieces. And our signature intercutting adds to this texture. Happenings are stretched and meshed the way they would be in real life, and not compacted according to the page-per-minute requirement of screenplay-writing textbooks.
I could never predict where the film was going (win!), what these people were going to do (again, win!) –though I must admit I found this to be the weakest of your “twists.” The subplot about stealing sculptures, too, I found rather half-hearted, not something these people would do. But then, even in Jigarthanda , I wasn’t quite convinced that the characters would do the things they did. They seemed to be puppets of a screenplay rather than credible human beings, whose actions evolve organically from who they are.
But even if I am not convinced by the overall trajectory of your characters, I love how fleshed-out they are on a moment-to-moment basis. Like Ponni. In a great scene – rather, a set of book-ending scenes – Michael tells Ponni that he was forced to marry her, and she’s going to have to “adjust” to this if she wants to be with him. Much later, she throws the “adjust” word back on his bearded face when he asks her if she slept with someone else. In a different kind of movie, we’d be invited to see this symmetry, stand up and applaud. But you’re too subtle for that, Karthik. Iraivi is your subtlest film.
Which is why I winced at the melodramatic lines about men and women, most of which came towards the end. For such a visual filmmaker (this is another outstandingly shot film, less showy than Jigarthanda and probably richer for that), do you really need the crutch of linguistic special effects from another era of filmmaking?
And why is it that your films come together more in the head than in the heart? Why are they easier to admire than love wholeheartedly? But perhaps this is bound to happen when there are so many people, so many strands, when we don’t follow one person’s simplistic “you go, girl” journey like we do in, say, 36 Vayadhinile ? When the parts are so well-crafted, we don’t complain as much about their sum not adding up to a satisfying whole.
I am sure that you will, one day, make that wholly satisfying film, but for now, thank you for these parts. Thank you for the ambition. Thank you for giving us SJ Surya, the actor – I never dreamed he had such a capacity to hold a scene, to hold the screen. Thank you for continuing not to sell out. And thank you for making me fight with myself, for not making it easy to decide if you’ve made a “good” film or a merely “okay” film. For now, Iraivi is a fascinating film, and that’s enough.