In most films, we can sense the director’s terror that the audience is going to tune out and start looking at their smartphones — hence the frantic cuts, the soundtrack whoosh accompanying the change of camera angles, the insistence that every scene carry a punch. Madhumita’s Moone Moonu Varthai exists at the other end of the spectrum. It’s so low-key that you feel one of those whooshes would blow it right off the screen. Maybe that’s why I liked it. And it’s full of little surprises, right from the title. I thought the three words were “I love you” — I expected a rom-com. But there’s a nice little high concept tucked in here. That, too, is refreshingly low-key.
The film opens in a hospital where K. Bhagyaraj (playing himself) is undergoing treatment for a panic attack. Few premises are more mouth-watering, few actors more suitable to be struck by this condition — but this track, disappointingly, is set aside as a framing device. A rather redundant one. Arjun (Arjun Chidambaram) happens to be in the same hospital, and when he discovers Bhagyaraj is there too, he barges into the latter’s room and begins narrating a story — his story. Why cast an actor with all the screen history that Bhagyaraj brings, only to use him as an audience substitute?
Over the opening credits, we see various people talk about Arjun as a loser — though an amiable one. He’s the kind of guy who quits his job because his supervisor wouldn’t give him the day off to watch a CSK match. A man-child, in other words. Arjun knows that his best friend — named, wait for this, Karna (Venkatesh Harinathan) — has to prepare for an office presentation, and yet he keeps distracting him, the way a bored child would. His indulgent grandparents (S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, Lakshmi) probably have something to do with the way he is. The story, then, is about Arjun becoming less child, more man.
I’m not going to oversell Moone Moonu Varthai. This is not the kind of film for which you use superlatives. I kept thinking... light... easy watch... nice, relaxed vibe. The high concept is in the business idea Arjun and Karna cook up. They become human telegrams — deliverers of bad news. You know this film is not working for you if you hear this idea and think: Why not email? But it didn’t bother me at all. This is exactly the kind of borderline-absurd thing a man-child would dream up, caring little about the feelings of the recipients of all this bad news. One of the clients is M.S. Baskar, who shows up in a purple robe, pipe in hand. Just looking at him made me laugh.
The film doesn’t do serious very well — but that’s, fortunately, a small part, like when Arjun’s girlfriend Anjali (Aditi Chengappa) closes the door on him. Most of the other potentially heavy moments — a nanbenda scene; a scene with the increasingly concerned grandparents — are treated with a light touch. I’ve rarely seen a Tamil film where so much booze is consumed and with such little narrative consequence. There’s no item-ish dance in a bar, no drunken drama. The songs could have been axed, but I suppose no film can afford to go that low-key.
Moone Moonu Varthai is a talky comedy, and it would have fallen apart with the wrong actors. Madhumita’s strength is her cast — especially Venkatesh Harinathan, who’s a superb ham. Just watch him belt out the title song of Padayappa. But he also aces a number of bittersweet moments. One of them involves a girl he’s fallen for. She rejects him. The scene makes us squirm a bit — we’ve gotten so used to laughing at (and with) Karna that we’re not sure how to respond to a situation that’s threatening to turn somewhat serious. Santhanam would have cracked an alliterative one-liner. Vivek would have turned faux-melodramatic. But Venkatesh Harinathan takes it on the chin, and is soon making a joke about kadalai. Like the film, he’s pleasantly nuts.