You must have heard the story of a man who finds a near-dead snake in the snow. He tends to it, nurses it with warmth and soon enough, the snake springs back to life only to bite the guy who rescued it.
Director Selvaraghavan is that kind of guy who nursed an audience that comprised of misogynists, male chauvinists, stalkers, voyeurs, roadside romeos and assorted slackers pining for love that always went unrequited.
His films gave them warmth, stoked the fire to pursue the girl to the point of invading her space or gratifying their fantasies. Be it peeping into her room when she’s changing in 7G Rainbow Colony or making them sing ‘Variya?’ (Pudhupettai) to girls around the city. Be it fulfilling their fantasy of urban women fighting for/snuggling up to one of their kind (Aayirathil Oruvan) or making them cheer ‘Adra Avala’ (Mayakkam Enna).
Selvaraghavan has always had strong women in his films but the way they were treated has always been a little problematic. Men harassed and/or abused women in his films and hardly apologized for it. On the contrary, the crowd seemed to be rooting for these glorified anti-heroes.
There has always been the lower-middle-class single-guy unrequited love angst associated with his kind of cinema that instantly connected with an audience that formed the major chunk of movie-goers. Friends called him the poor man’s Mani Ratnam not because he lacked technique but because his heroes were always from the lower middle class.
From sex to voyeurism to abuse, he never shied away from showing what Mani Ratnam would be more discreet about. And that raw, edgy, bold crassness has always been his signature because people hailing from that lower middle class economic background were like that. Crude, rough and not the kinds who would look for euphemisms.
So when Selvaraghavan makes a film that works as an apology to womankind for all that misogynist, chauvinistic behaviour his films have been accused of promoting, his loyal but rabid lower middle class fan base that loved his old films seems to be unable to come to terms with the coming of age of Selvaraghavan’s cinema and its changing sensibility.
It’s not that Selvaraghavan has crossed over to cater to a more elite audience. He hasn’t entirely but this film surely seems like a transition into a more refined sensibility of restraint and understatement. Which is why the only jarring bits in Mayakkam Enna are the dramatic crying scenes that feel a little overdone ONLY because the rest of the film is so classy, subtle and understated.
So when the best scene of the film played out (one that is both disturbing and sentimental as Richa tries to scrub the blood off the floor – a better actress may have played this with greater restraint), the unruly college crowd, the snake Selvaraghavan provided warmth to, now bared its fangs. The crowd was laughing at the crying hero who is apologizing to the woman for what he has done.
And Dhanush cries quite a bit in the film. That’s a far cry from what heroes do. He also gets slapped by pretty much everyone he looks up to – first the girl, then the guy who steals his credit (slapped not literally but emotionally) and finally by his best friend.
They soon, as we, realise that the angry tough young man who sings ‘Adra Avala’ is actually a cluelessly lost, soft-hearted, sentimental fool who is weak in resolve. Whether it is getting the girl he is attracted to or claiming credit that is rightfully his.
Contrastingly, the girl here is the hero of the film. She wears the pants. She takes the initiative for the kiss (which we don’t see in a Selvaraghavan film – another indication of the director’s changing sensibility). She fights for him when he’s too scared to confront his best friend. She fights for him even when he has given up (by sending his pics to magazines). She fights for him even when he is consumed by self-pity and dejection. She does not give up on him ever. She is the breadwinner, the mother and the wife.
Again, not because she’s a doormat but because she believes that he’s just mentally ill with all that angst eating him up. She knows that the only cure for that mental illness is to make him get his confidence back. She has the choice to leave him but she doesn’t. On the other hand, she is not quick to forgive him. She takes her time.
If Gran Torino was Clint Eastwood’s way of saying sorry for having led a generation astray with his brand of cowboy justice, Mayakkam Enna serves as Selvaraghavan’s apology (even if unintended) to women for all the harassment portrayed (and unintentionally glorified) in his past films.
It’s a solid tribute to the strength and resilience of the Indian wife, who for years now, has stood by her husband no matter what an asshole he has been. Yes, the Indian woman has changed and she no longer puts up with shit. But it’s never too late to acknowledge the woman behind every successful man.
Hats off to Dhanush to sink his teeth into a role that required him to completely submit to the character of a despicably weak man who deserves our sympathy but not our respect (it’s not a role any mainstream Tamil film hero would have taken up) and still infuse it with a boyish charm of someone real we know. No character in the film, barring the photographer who steals the credit is entirely evil but even there, when the man asks his assistants to throw him off the set, there is no stereotypical portrayal of goons pushing him to the floor to dramatic music. (Here, as perfect it may be, I really don’t want to comment on GV Prakash’s score. I am afraid to credit this young composer with any good work because he has constantly proved to be a thief. That is the thing when you steal and do it more than once, nobody believes you when it is really yours. Once you are in the business of stealing, you are a thief no matter what else you do.)
It’s the shades of grey within relationships that Selvaraghavan revels in and he works magic in this area. Friends fight, some scars remain, some cracks stay open but everything heals with time. It’s that strong, credible human fabric binding the relationships in the film that makes Mayakkam Enna rise above all its logical oversights (be it the geographical accuracy of the kind of animals/birds shot by the photographer, the places it is featured in or the cosmetic detail of Dhanush’s wig in the final act) and overdone histrionics (the crying scenes and that humiliation scene where he has to act as a dog probably put in to cater to an audience that was missing director Vikraman and SA Rajkumar’s score). Elaborate points on what works and what doesn’t are in Baradwaj Rangan’s review here. I agree with Baddy on most points.
Like most of Selvaraghavan’s films, the first and the second half feels like two different films. Here, the first is about a guy falling in love with his best friend’s girlfriend and the second is about a frustrated man turning abusive unable to cope with failure. There’s no point asking him to do a screenwriting course or telling him that he lacks what is needed to make it big because some people are just happy doing what comes naturally to them.
And this is an intensely personal film about an artist who can put the camera in front of an old woman and make her look beautiful with all her wrinkles.
So it seems autobiographical when he calls his biggest critic and tells her in his moment of truth: “I don’t want to do a course to know how to shoot light and shadow in a studio. I know I can capture life as it is. With all its beauty. I rather be happy doing something I like doing than stay unhappy doing something I don’t because it pays. I may never become big but I will remain happy.” And ironically, that is what he thought back then. He does not stay happy. Such is the nature of man.
Selvaraghavan knows he can see the beauty of the wild side of nature. His films are an exposition on the nature of man. He’s high on that passion to capture that beast. He’s a man in love with what he does. There’s nothing that makes him happier than recognition for his work.
Well done, Selva in bringing us this unique love story about a man in love with his craft. And a heroine who brought them together.