With Gautham Menon, it has always been the extremes. You’re either a fan of his super-indulgent filmmaking, or you aren’t. That melliya kodu, that he keeps making references to, never really existed with regard to the consumption of his films. And even if it had, ENPT plummages that thin zone into a chasm.
If you love his first-person narrations, you’ll love the way he breaks new ground with the usage of voice-overs, even for his standards. With Vaaranam Aayiram, you travelled along with Surya. With Yennai Arindhaal, you ended up inside Sathyadev’s head. But, with ENPT, it feels like watching a virtual-reality film. When Raghu (Dhanush) wryly wonders, “Dei anna, unnala than da idhu! apa andha josiyar 90 vayasu vara irupennu sonnadhu?” with a bullet aimed at him frozen in mid-air, you feel teleported into the screen. Would this be your line of thought when a bullet is about to hit your torso! Yet, Gautham somehow makes it all seem organic. You feel the angst. And the terror. Even, the pain. You either soak in all this magic, or call it “lazy filmmaking”. There’s no middle ground, whatsoever.
If you admire Gautham’s wit (which was peppered in many of Raghavan’s one-liners), there’s a ocean to like here. Many a time, the first-person narration morphs into a unique kind of commentary that’s awash with irony. This is something we don’t see much in our film-making environment. At a decisive moment, when some context finally descends into the proceedings, the voice-over notes, “Avan sonna kadhai Pokkiri padam.” It’s a sweet surprise – a moment of unprecedented humour – something that keeps springing up, when you least expect it. A simple line like “Feel panna vechitaan” becomes a delightful running gag. Something as basic as consent gets conveyed with swag. “Na ava disturbed-a irukkrapo, idhu nadaka koodadhu nu nenaichen. I wasn’t the bad guy. But she didn’t care about anything, and then, I didn’t want to, as well.” Raghu sighs, You can either revel at the beauty with which these gems land, or call it “ineffective embellishments. Again, there’s no middle ground.
If you had loved the small bits of indulgent and self-deprecating flourishes that have riddled his earlier films, you are in for a feast in ENPT. Gautham stacks the proceedings with so many “self-aware touches,” that he practically pulls you out of the narrative at times – but then, there’s a lot these little “director’s touches” do. For starters, they lend a ‘cocky’ coolness to the narrative, even when the situation seems grim. For instance, when you expect the heroine to launch into a lengthy exposition, Raghu quips, ““Iva ippa enna kadha sollaporaalo!” At another clap-worthy instance, he observes with a sneer that one of the thugs waiting inside his room has the deadly club from Suriya’s Ghajini. You chuckle. Raghu rounds off a terrific stretch of thrills and action with a slur aimed at the bad guy and then goes, “Naa sonnadhu jokeu. But, avan sirikkala. Badhiluku enna suttutaan.” If you thought that line was juvenile, wait till you see the way it lands inside the GVM-universe. At times, Gautham even uses these quips to take the story forward. In
\the scene just before the interval block, another filmmaker might have felt the need for pages of dialogue. Raghu just quips, “Auto-pilot mode, that’s what I am on.” You get the drift. You either catch yourself smiling to these clever, irreverent bits, or wriggle in exhaustion. There’s absolutely no middle ground.
If you are a fan of Gautham’s style of playing cupid, the man makes you realise how much you missed him, right from the scene where Lekha sneaks into the mens hostel to meet Raghu. The girl doesn’t speak a word, there. “Nee enna avlo nallavana?” exclaims her friend. The stretch that follows – Raghu and Lekha getting to know each other amidst a birthday party (light years apart from our usual love-at-first-sight scenarios) – makes you yearn for more. The girl makes the first move, holds the guy’s hands, and literally walks him through who she is. You want to watch more of this couple on screen. They don’t put air quotes around their hugging, petting, kissing, and cuddling in bed. They make intimacy look easy. And organic. At least, part of this is because of Gautham’s writing that , more often than not, seems to land straight outta his heart . The way a sequence – involving a joke about higher studies, a hesitant expression of commitment, and a tactfully-placed bit of silence – ends, gives you the shivers – the joyful kind, I mean. The scenes featuring the couple and Raghu’s parents, in particular, are a riot. And, you can’t help, but be amazed at the way it’s conveyed to us in first-person. When this beautifully-written stretch smoothly seagues into “Visiri”, the song just explodes. You smile. You revel in the chemistry. You soak in the love. You jump up in delight. You tear up a little. You live the moment. Or, you just bury your face in your popcorn and slump back into your seat, complaining about the way some of the lyrics are lip-synced, while the others play over mood moments. No sire, the middle ground is an illusion.
If you are a sucker for the way Gautham shoots his ‘action’, chances are that you will walk out of ENPT craving for more. The filmmaker reinvents his own masala instincts that had apparently abandoned him in AYM. Case-in-point: a set-piece involving claustrophobia, a crook, a cop, and Raghu. It’s a terrific bit of imagination, the impact coming not just from the raw violence, but from the emotional resonance imparted by the David vs Goliath undertones. It’s exhilarating. And just when you let your guard down to take in the heroism, the voice-over pulls you back, ““It looks easy doesn’t it? That’s because of me. It isn’t, in reality. Valikkudhu” It’s tough not to give in to the charm. Or, instead, you start by calling out the dissonance and the dreariness of it all, while highlighting your inability to identify with the protagonist. No, there’s no middle ground.
And Dhanush is wonderful as Raghu. He, in fact, plays the Gautham Menon-hero with the right mix of suavities and vulnerabilities. Even as the filmmaker keeps adding bits and pieces of himself every passing moment, Dhanush aces it all, with great panache. In another film, with another actor, some of his dialogues might have ended up unintentionally funny. But, Dhanush – being the performer he is – lends an air of credibility to the voice-overs, even the ones that seem outright idiotic on paper. At one point, he even pulls off a line about Lekha’s neck being his abode, in all earnestness. I totally bought his righteous explosion when he meets Lekha after a gap, and his unconscionable grief when he reacts to the news about his brother, After a while, even when the proceedings turn bizarre, Dhanush’s interpretation of Raghu keeps you watching, Eventually, you yield in to his magic. Or, complain about the mess the whole thing becomes. The golden mean, just like the unicorn, doesn’t exist.
Yet, if you claim to have found middle ground, and are tempted to qualify the film as “a one-time watch,” with a rating of 2.25, you are, in all probability, not being honest to yourself. Or, you haven’t found the film, yet. But, if your grouse is that it’s just another rearrangement of Gautham’s pet tropes and visuals, you are missing the point. The fun here is waiting to see what form the “isms” take next. Phew, the man keeps surprising. And the rest is about the emotional beats that strike an instant chord – the little narrative sleights of hand, and the clever payoffs, like the fact that we’re primed for Raghu’s eventual admission to his parents towards the end, in an earlier flashback involving his brother.
Yes, the film comes across as convenient, many a times. A few other issues linger. Lekha’s inner turbulence could have used a little more fleshing out. The resolution could have used a wee bit more ‘bite’. Nevertheless, in a film-making environment where we can sense pages from the script being transposed to the screen, week after week, Gautham Menon’s brand of cinema keeps you in the loop. It talks to you. It pets you. It cajoles you. It irks you. It convinces you. It floors you. It pulls you inside, and makes you fall in love, all over again. To me, this’s interactive cinema. Bandersnatch isn’t.