Navarasa review: Netflix Tamil anthology is a mixed bag of few watchable, some problematic, mostly banal stories

From irritatingly self-referential and boringly stale shorts, unpleasant surprises to heartening narratives, Mani Ratnam's Tamil anthology is a sum total of its disparate parts.

Ranjani Krishnakumar August 07, 2021 09:57:45 IST
Navarasa review: Netflix Tamil anthology is a mixed bag of few watchable, some problematic, mostly banal stories

“Hey pasangala,” calls Kamal, a Grammy-nominated singer, now performing for a small group. “Have you been nice to your woman? If not apologise now. And this song is about that,” he explains before breaking into song. “I am so ashamed, this is my introspection,” he croons.

This song is composed and performed by Karthik — who was accused of sexual misconduct during the #MeToo movement — for the short film titled Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru, written and directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon. Since then, Menon has come under immense criticism for continuing to give Karthik a platform. He has stood his ground.

It is noteworthy that, in 2021, in an anthology that claims to have been about the “emotional journey of an industry coming together to support its people”, produced by ace director Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan, starring a leading hero Suriya, streaming on the international platform Netflix, Karthik gets to “introspect,” making music, and some money off it.

If you thought my point was simply that men continue their illustrious careers despite sexual harassment accusations, I invite you to continue reading. Because Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru is the story of Kamal — played by Suriya who certainly doesn’t look 32, as he claims to be — a singer/composer. He falls in love with Nethra, a 22-year-old singer who comes to work with him. This should have been a completely professional relationship, but apparently, neither Gautham Menon nor Karthik introspected, or even listened, enough!

Navarasa review Netflix Tamil anthology is a mixed bag of few watchable some problematic mostly banal stories

A still from Navarasa

Kamal claims that he fell in love with her the moment he saw her. At one point, he declares that he had a vibe the moment she opened the door! They discuss stalking and dismiss the possibility. He mentions many times over how she reminds him of his loving mother — “you’re a goner, hook, line and sinker,” is how he describes that realisation. Kamal is slightly embarrassed about falling in love with someone ten years his junior but gets over it soon enough. Nethra too flirts, in classic Gautham Menon cinematic universe fashion: She speaks in a husky voice, praises Kamal to all heavens, looks at him creepily, and insists on escalating sexual tension.

Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru is not just problematic, but also irritatingly self-referential and boringly stale. The entire film is just two parts: One scene where the two lovers actually meet, and several scenes of endless description of that meeting. Nethra is narrating the scene back to Kamal over an excruciating bike ride, and Kamal is later describing it to his audience between songs and so on. In the end, Menon pontificates if love is physics or biology or mathematics. Might have been useful if he also considered if his story is realistic or even interesting.

To be fair to Navarasa, Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru is only one of the nine short films in the anthology. And not all of them are this way.

The anthology begins with Ethiri, the film about compassion. It explores a simple idea: What is a crime? And what compassion does it deserve? Mani Ratnam, the writer of the story, chooses the most pedestrian approach to his. Screenplay writers Bejoy Nambiar and Arpita Chatterjee try to add layers with some fantastical elements and philosophical underpinnings, but it is let down by its predictability.

Revathy, as the compassionate teacher, mother and wife, is fantastic. She looks the part, upholding the suspense almost singlehandedly. She moves me to tears in the last frame, expressing so many feelings, thoughts, fears and regrets. Vijay Sethupathy is no match, he looks more disinterested than repentant. In the end, Chinmayi’s yaadho does lot more for the film than the writing and performances put together.

Following this is Summer of 92, the only short film in the anthology that occupies the space of humour. Priyadarshan attempts to write a folksy take on small-town life: A boy with learning difficulties, his father with small dreams, a woman with an unfetching horoscope, a flirtatious schoolteacher, an unruly dog and so on. He even weaves a short story-like fabric. There are moments where the nostalgia is endearing.

Navarasa review Netflix Tamil anthology is a mixed bag of few watchable some problematic mostly banal stories

A still from Navarasa

But the film fails to evoke much laughter. By now, we should know better than to call Yogi Babu “panni moonji vaaya” (man with a pig-like face) or say “panni madhiri irupaan aana nai than” (he looks like a pig but is actually a dog). In the least, they aren’t funny. Even when Yogi Babu’s Velusamy performs a sort of a stand-up routine, the jokes sound tired — how many times have you not heard about the uselessness of algebra in real life!

Karthik Naren’s Project Agni about wonder is a bit of an unpleasant surprise. The film is ambitious, it imagines concepts that are not familiar to Tamil cinema and resists the temptation of explaining them in grand detail. But in the process, it lacks serious exploration of anything.

We’re told a WhatsApp forward-esque theory about the universe, covering time travel, astrology, Mayan civilization, alien invasion, super-villainy, even computers taking over the world, for good measure. The mad scientist is called Vishnu, his trusted companion is called Krishna, the supervillain is called Kalki — Naren continues to indulge his fondness for nest eggs, though the novelty of these things doesn’t much strengthen the story.

In the second or third viewing, Project Agni might be laughable — you might even wonder what they were thinking. But Karthik Naren does a good job of keeping us hooked the first time. Arvind Swami and Prasanna sell the film hard, making us want to believe what they believe.

Next comes Vasanth S Sai’s film about disgust Payasam. If you held a gun to my head to pick a favourite from this anthology, I’d choose this one. An adaptation of T Janakiraman’s story, Payasam, set in 1960s Kumbakonam, follows a day in the life of Subbu’s uncle, the day of his nephew’s daughter’s wedding. The hustle, bustle, thievery, and deception of a wedding is captured in great detail. The busy kitchen and its turf wars add an interesting dimension. The silent melancholy of Bhagi, played by Aditi Balan, is tangible. Rohini, who plays Subbu’s uncle’s wife, looks 25 years too young to be playing Delhi Ganesh’s wife. Turns out, in real life, she is.

Delhi Ganesh is exceptional as the disgusting protagonist, being a difficult, grudging, and unrelenting old man. There is a sequence where he decides to come for the wedding and walks to the house where it’s happening. We watch him trip over a bunch of things, never once bothering to set it back, only walking away mumbling curses. The film offers no explanation for his despicable behaviour — he is just a petty person. Vasanth captures the casual cruelty of humans delicately well in this film.

In stark contrast to the story of one man’s war with himself is Karthik Subbaraj’s Peace?, about, well, peace. Subbaraj interprets the emotion he’s chosen quite literally, making a war film about Ealam. Protecting their frontline are a group of soldiers, Castro, Cheran, Nilavan and Master, when a young boy approaches them requesting a rescue. Nilavan agrees to do it as “prayachitham” (redemption). The short journey that he makes through no man’s land to complete the rescue forms the rest of the film.

Apart from an odd frame here and dialogue there, Peace? is ordinary. Neither Gautham Vasudev Menon nor Simha, who play Master and Nilavan respectively, demonstrates much acting chops. Nilavan’s trigger-happy sway of emotion in the end feels like unrealistically misplaced optimism. This film is exemplary of the risks of choosing a theme and tell the story after — it gets too involved in telling the message than in letting the story tell it.

Similar problems exist in the other conflict film in the anthology: Sarjun KM’s Thunindha Pin, a film about courage. Vetri, played by a rather one-note Atharvaa, is a cop assigned to the control of Naxals in Tamil Nadu. Soon enough, he finds himself a travel companion in the form of Comrade, a Naxal leader. Kishore, as Comrade, does the best he can with the material that’s handed to him. The conversation between the two had the potential to be enlightening, but it falls grossly short. It explores ideas of conviction and courage, without showing us what gives one such conviction. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time.

Arvind Swami’s Routhiram about anger is, thankfully, more layered. A mother’s anger against the society, a man’s anger towards the oppressor, a woman’s suppressed rage — Arvind Swami explores the emotion from multiple angles. But his gaze is that of a voyeuristic outsider. The film begins with a high-contrast montage of a poor community of people: We see women pumping water from the ground by hand, men folding fishing nets, street vendors, parotta masters, drainage flowing on to the streets and so on. In trying to show us a glimpse of the world, he reduces them to suffering stereotypes.

Sree Ram and Riythvika do the best of what’s written for them. Madhan Karky and Selva do the toilet humour quite well. In places, the dynamic between the mother and two children rings true. As the film progresses, the story becomes glaringly obvious. Especially looking at the kind, almost embracing, gaze that Vasanth endows on the Brahmin community of Kumbakonam a few minutes ago, I found myself wishing that there are a hundred Pa. Ranjiths telling the story of their people for every Arvind Swami, who tries.

Navarasa review Netflix Tamil anthology is a mixed bag of few watchable some problematic mostly banal stories

A still from Navarasa

The most surprising endeavour in the anthology is Rathindran R Prasad’s Inmai, about fear. In its 30+ minute run-time, the film is one-part murder mystery, one-part revenge saga, a little bit magical realist and a little more budding romance. Rathindran brings them all artfully together, though, telling a story that is satisfying to the end. He explores the ideas of regret, justification, penance and charity from the prism of crime.

Vishal Bharadwaj makes a haunting background score that maintains the sense of doom and regret in the air. Siddharth, the actor, struggles in finding the balance between the elevation of performance needed for the magical realism to work and the grounding necessary for the story to be believable. So does Parvathy in a way — there are moments in the film where she appears completely out of her skin, partly attributable to an odd accent she speaks in.

As an anthology, Navarasa is a mixed bag. Vasanth S Sai’s Payasam and Rathindran R Prasad’s Inmai are watchable. Karthik Naren’s Project Agni and Nejoy Nambiar’s Ethiri try but fail. The conflict films — Karthik Subbaraj’s Peace? and Sarjun KM’s Thunindha Pin — are conflicted. Priyadarshan’s Summer of 92 is nostalgic for the unfunny humour of the 90s. Arvind Swami’s Routhiram is misplaced. Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru is well left.

Updated Date:

also read

Chinese-Canadian star Kris Wu sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on charges including rape
Entertainment

Chinese-Canadian star Kris Wu sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on charges including rape

“According to the facts … the nature, circumstances and harmful consequences of the crime, the court made the above judgment," the court said in an online statement.

'Vikram Gokhale has died in Pune hospital where he was undergoing treatment,' confirms family
Entertainment

'Vikram Gokhale has died in Pune hospital where he was undergoing treatment,' confirms family

The actor was critical for the last few days and undergoing treatment in Pune. His daughter refuted rumours of his demise recently in a statement.

Explained: The hidden meaning and foreshadowing in Qala's songs
Entertainment

Explained: The hidden meaning and foreshadowing in Qala's songs

In Qala's soundtrack, no lyric or verse is accidental. Music is a character in Qala which has a distinct identity of its own. There are times when it acts like an oracle prophesying future events.