Mersal may be a triumph for its star Vijay, but what does it say about its director Atlee?
While Mersal is a triumph for Vijay — be it in terms of his acting prowess, screen presence or hitting the right notes for the mass audience — what does it really say for Atlee, the young filmmaker at its helm?
A few minutes before the interval to the long-drawn out first half of Mersal, I fully understood its story as another name flashed into my mind: Apoorva Sagodharargal (Appu Raja in Hindi). That wonderful Kamal Haasan film told a tale of two brothers — Appu, a dwarf who avenges his parents’ deaths by murdering their killers, and his twin Raja, who is blamed for the murders; the brothers later unite to jointly take down their arch nemesis.
In Mersal, ‘Appu’ is seen in the character of Vettri, a magician, while ‘Raja’ here, is the good doctor Maaran (both roles played by Vijay; who also plays Vettri and Maaran’s slain father, Thalapathy). The villains in Mersal happen to be doctors. Since there are only two of them in this film, as opposed to the four in Appu Raja, director Atlee adds a few more to Vettri’s ‘clean-up mission’.
The large blanket disguising this Appu Raja inspired tale is a takedown of the flaws in the Indian medical system. Watch Mersal to learn how Singapore’s GST percentage facilitates free medical care in that country and how ours doesn’t (although it would be better to have some citizen of Singapore clarify this point). Mersal takes ages to establish all of the above, and not without some confusion.
Atlee uses new tricks to convince us that Mersal is an original story, but the similarities to Kamal Haasan’s film are one too many to miss. So if there’s a circus in Appu Raja, there’s a magician’s den in Mersal. Appu and Vettri’s modus operandi in killing the bad guys is the same — everyday objects, propelled by physics, become dangerous weapons (an arrow there, a sharp bottle here). Mersal has a lengthy flashback (Vijay playing the father, Thalapathy, and romancing Nithya Menen) —which would’ve been a great differentiator if only it weren’t a lead-up to the twins-seeking-vengeance plot.
SJ Suryah in Mersal replaces Nagesh from Appu Raja. If Gauthami plays the daughter of one of the offenders in Appu Raja, then in Mersal, Kajal Aggarwal is interning under one of the villainous doctors. Samantha Ruth Prabhu’s track marks a small departure; Mersal has her playing the love interest of Vijay’s Dr Maaran avatar. It’s a reciprocal relationship, unlike Appu’s unrequited love in the Kamal Haasan film.
But Mersal is not the first film of Atlee’s to have been ‘inspired’ by older, iconic ones. All three films the director has made thus far draw heavily from other movies.
Let’s start with Raja Rani, which starred Nayanthara and Arya as a couple stuck in a loveless marriage. Both of them carry the wounds of failed romances. That was the only difference in premise between Raja Rani and Mani Ratnam’s 1986 classic Mouna Ragam. In Mouna Ragam, Revathy is heartbroken after Karthik’s death and is unable to accept Mohan as her husband. In Raja Rani, Arya’s girlfriend meets with an accident while Nayanthara’s lover Jai heeds his father’s demand and breaks off his relationship with her. These flashbacks apart, the marital equation between the couple — non-consummation of the marriage, living in disharmony, pitched ego battles, and trying to figure out the future — in Raja Rani serves as a reminder of Mouna Ragam. It’s interesting that Atlee assisted director Shankar, but still chose to build on a Mani Ratnam film for his directorial debut.
Atlee jumped genres with his second film, but not before tipping his hat to another Mani Ratnam production, Kshatriyan (Ratnam wrote and produced the film, K Subash directed it). Vijaykanth’s act as a celebrated police officer was reprised by Vijay in Theri. Theri worked in boosting Vijay’s already soaring ‘mass hero’ image. Bhanupriya’s role in Kshatriyan was played by Amy Jackson in Theri, Revathy’s role was reprised by Samantha, and instead of Thilakan, Theri had Mahendran. The villain-hero clash in Theri was as intense as Kshatriyan’s. If Vijaykanth had three kids in Kshatriyan, Vijay had one daughter, and the pair’s antics carry forward much of Theri’s first half.
If Theri cemented Vijay’s mass appeal, it also helped position him as the replacement for MGR. Indeed, in Mersal, the MGR references are many. And while Mersal is a triumph for Vijay — be it in terms of his acting prowess, screen presence or hitting the right notes for the mass audience — what does it really say for the young filmmaker at its helm?
Mersal has a Murugadoss-meets-Shankar style of filmmaking but without their level of clarity. A story must rise above its inspiration, if any. I left the Mersal screening with a renewed sense of awe — for Appu Raja, and how Kamal Haasan had been able to bring in multiple genres in one film to create a blockbuster entertainer.
Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but some masterpieces are perhaps better left untouched.
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