Thoongavanam- the movie that wasn’t

God! It was bloody good. I just couldn’t have enough of it. My facial hair felt validated. My adrenalin surge was making my fist pump endlessly into the desk adjoining the PC. The lurking fanboy finally had a reason to resurface with renewed vigour.
The “it” I’m talking about is the trailer of Thoongavanam. Boy was it lip-smacking with Thalaivar in amazing form, kicking some ass. A Taken it was going to be, I thought in Kamal style. Another one to go to the list of masculinity-for-dummies manual that consisted of the likes of Satya and Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu to name a few.
We all revere the mesmerizing actor the man is. A rare breed who could own the screen without disturbing the aesthetics of the story movement. Towering tall enough to not belittle the movie. His recent Papanasam being a case in point.
Coming back to Thoongavanam, I went to the first day first show with great expectations built. The promise the tease managed, the reveal couldn’t build on. Every thing that caught my imagination in the trailer suddenly seemed like red herrings . What with every scene rolling, I could palpably feel my fervency falling apart like a pack of cards. Was the movie bad? No.
But was it just good enough to just not be bad? This was a Kamal Haasan movie after all. All of us know that the actors would be well casted and the cast wouldn’t disappoint. Likewise the technicalities can be taken for granted to be seamlessly in-sync with the narrative. And the narrative would try to bring to fore a radically different story. So Thoongavanam had all these bare minimums fulfilled. But did the fans of the star have anything to root for like a Vedhalam which released alongside had? No.

The reviews which floated around were extremely flattering with most calling it a wonderful remake of the French movie, Sleepless Night with major assertions towards the ‘justice’ it had done to the movie.
So, is it enough for a movie to do just ‘justice’ to the source movie from which it was remade. How relevant would such ardent submission be, if the milieu in which the original movie was based is diametrically different from the remake’s. Not to mention the difference in sensibilities of the respective viewing demography.

Sleepless Night is a French movie that catered largely to Western & European sensibilities when it released back in 2011.We are a population that adds tandoori chicken to make an Italian origin pizza saleable here. If at all, the number of manchurians and fried rice variants that’ve been imagined by our street food industry were to be patented in Indian favour, it would scar the Chinese for a lifetime.
The same holds true for celluloid adaptations of foreign origin movies too. The connectivity in such endeavors happens when nativity is addressed, with the spirit of the original alone preserved in a narrative technique appointed to play to the gallery of a largely indigenous population.
This is where this movie missed the mark by some distance. Taking the culinary metaphor of pizza further, the pizza needed some tandoori sauce and Indian herbs to become palatable on the Indian roads, but continued to be a rich-bland affair that belonged on the ovens of Milan still, but aspired for acceptance in Mylapore.

Let’s take the case of another Kamal classic- Avvaishanmugi which was adapted from an English classic itself, Mrs. Doubtfire.  The movie despite being an adaption of the Robbin Williams starrer had an independent existence of its own without tampering with the core of the original. It kept the central conceit intact, that of a divorced dad dressing up as an elderly woman to be around his little daughter.
The motley product of dispute, reasons, characters & props that the narrative deployed stayed local and relatable, steering it in a direction different from the original, making the movie speak in the language of the hoi polloi.
Mrs. Doubtfire was a classy affair with subtle situational humor. Avvaishanmugi on the other hand was its unabashed masala recreation that relied largely on dialogue based humor and the crowd pulling ability of its lead man. Whether it did justice to the original in its entirety is subjective. But what it managed to do justice to was far more consequential than that. It reached the story of a doting dad’s cross dressing tryst to get back his daughter to a large audience, in the process seeping into popular culture. No wonder the movie was such a roaring success.

Thoongavanam was a grim-long-faced affair unfolding in a night club, that’s claustrophobia inducing with grimmer adults on endless loops of hide-n-seek throughout its running time. It didn’t help that it released on Diwali, a festival that makes mincemeat of guilty pleasures. Where movies are expected to be run-of-the-mill escapist affairs in line with the popular mood, it didn’t help that it was a slow movie that had every character in it operating at a breakneck speed. Every cop and crook in the movie, run for their lives or to save a dependent’s in this convoluted plot involving multiple ratting in either camps. But neither do we connect to their desperation nor to the plot’s urgency to cut to the chase in every sequence.

Throughout the movie we’re shown the endless failed efforts that Kamal’s Diwakar takes to get back his son in painful details. He’s head-butted, pushed and punched by stock characters whose names gratuitously roll in the end credits as “Extras”. They obviously wanted to throw some light on the vulnerability of the lead man. But ended up celebrating his fallibility to an audience that had gathered in hordes to hoot and whistle, alienating them in the process.

The redemption does come in the end. But it was too precise to invigorate any celebration and didn’t even belong to its lead man. In the mainstream format, when a story takes significant duration to paint the struggles of its lead man vividly, but coughs his redemption out like a blemish in the end, it defies the very syntax of moviemaking for the masses that goes, Exaggerate the success in the end to be sweeter than the struggle to make the struggle worthwhile in the first place.

Movie making involves largely making-believe than fact establishing. The leverage of exaggeration and the staging of the protagonist does the trick. Case in point being Emerich’s 2012, an apocalyptic movie that showcases John Cusack and his family escaping comfortably from one natural disaster to another like in a video game with breathtaking ease.  Disasters were staged as an invincible force, making the contrived escapes of the protagonist come across as a bigger spectacle of defiance; playing the primal battle of Man versus the Nature to the gallery.
A closer case being Liam Neeson’s Taken that resembles the plot of Thoongavanam to a large extent. Just that Neeson’s character is staged as an invincible one-man army that runs over anything in his way. Something that Thoongavanam could’ve done with. Something Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu aced. For who can forget the wolf whistles that went up the roof when Raghavan looks into the screen mouthing,”Chinna Pasangala. Tha..Yaaru Kitta da vilayadringa?”
That was a movie for the masses. A star’s conversation with his fans.







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