The title design is striking. There’s the name of the film, Pichaikaaran, and there’s a crown on top. Sasi’s new film is a riches-to-rags story – but not the kind you think. The reason millionaire Arul (Vijay Anthony) becomes a beggar isn’t because of a bad run at the share market or because his spinning mills stopped spinning. It’s something else. It’s a matter of faith, which may be why we keep hearing the Gayatri Mantra in the background. (You could call it blind belief, but isn’t that what faith is?) However his films turn out finally, you have to hand it to Vijay Anthony – he picks stories that are different, interesting, stories that are about something. When was the last time you saw a Tamil film in which the first song was dedicated to the mother?
After his move to the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Arul smears some grease on his face and approaches a group of youngsters at the beach. But when they ask (somewhat belligerently; he is, after all, a stranger) what he wants, he leaves hastily, somewhat red-faced. After the life he’s led, he just cannot bring himself to beg. The initial portions show how little Arul knows about this world – it’s like those films where a bumpkin lands up in a palace, but with the polarities reversed. Arul practices asking people for alms. Then he approaches a line of beggars outside a temple, and when they invite him to sit, he drags out a small box crate for a seat. One of the beggars looks at him and says, “Onna paatha Annai Theresa-ku kooda anbu varaadhu.” The line made me laugh. Arul is a walking-talking sore thumb.
My favourite part of Pichaikaaran was when Arul is advised on this course of action – he has to become a beggar for reasons that have to do with his mother – and he says... “Konjam yosikkanum.” This dithering isn’t something you expect from the hero in an industry that swears by anthems like Thaayillamal naanillai and Annayai pol oru dheivamillai. But we know what Arul means. It isn’t that he’s selfish. It’s just that it’s a big ask. It’s not easy to be inside an Etios one day and then find yourself sleeping on the pavement, beside a woman whose nose and mouth are flecked with flies. Arul’s girlfriend Maghilini (Satna Titus, who’s refreshingly grounded) deletes a selfie she takes with him because there’s a beggar in the background. What does it mean for this man with millions to cup a palm and feel grateful that some kind soul has dropped a five-rupee coin in it?
The challenge for the film is to make interesting drama out of this immense change of circumstances – but that doesn’t really happen. At no point do we feel Arul has something really at stake. (Vijay Anthony’s stiff performance doesn’t help.) Things come too easily. He befriends other beggars too easily. He gets food, clothing, shelter too easily. He finds Maghilini – the very girl he planned to marry after looking ather picture on a matrimonial site – too easily. After being incommunicado for so long, his best friend (Bagavathi Perumal) finds him too easily. And Maghilini – who doesn’t know about Arul’s former life – overhears his story too easily. There is a lot of very lazy writing. We needed more scenes like the one where Arul confidently confronts the brash owner of an Audi who begins to insult Maghilini when her scooter rear-ends the car. Arul knows this kind of man, he knows this kind of car, even if he no longer leads this kind of life.
Instead of touching on these specifics, Sasi is content to coast along a fairly generic path – with ill-defined villains who keep popping up so that Vijay Anthony can send them into orbit and prove he’s got it in him to be a masala-movie hero. (The interval block is a major cheat.) There’s even a subplot about illegal drug testing, which seems to have come from an entirely different kind of movie, probably one with the other Vijay. We get an interesting character in Arul’s uncle (Muthuraman), a man so obsessed with money that he sleeps to the soft whirr of currency notes being counted by an automatic machine. But he gets nothing to do. Still, given the dismal state of recent releases, I found myself reasonably bullish about Pichaikaaran. I liked the bit about how poverty can be eradicated if the government stops printing five-hundred- and thousand-rupee notes. I don’t even know if it makes sense, but there’s at least a thought in there somewhere, and it’s not hammered home as a message. Small mercies.