Why always the same story?
– Mani Prabhu
You don’t go to a Bala film expecting to come out light, refreshed and upbeat. Well, unless your idea of feeling ‘upbeat’ involves watching societal fringe dwellers caught in a never-ending vortex of horrific hells. By now, you are either a fan of his queasy, raw films or you aren’t, and Thaara Thappattai doesn’t endeavour to change your mind. Here, Bala replaces bonded labourers from his earlier movie with folk dancers, and narrates a harrowing tale of heartbreak and macabre.
And in this exercise, he starts off brilliantly – playing the perfect tour guide – holding our hands and taking us on an unflinching fun ethological ride; introducing us to a quirky set of artists who had become irrelevant in the eyes of the society, familiarizing us with their way of taking, their idiosyncrasies, their idea of fun and in general their way of life. These, without doubt, make for some of the best moments of the film. He incorporates almost everything we have come to associate with him in these initial segments – graphic dialogue, tasteful ingenuity, irreverent humour – and it all works. And there is even this nice little ‘Bala’ touch in the way he subverts the usual characterization of his leads – a normal hero (Sannasi) and a atypical heroine (Sooravali). Yes, here we have, probably for the first time in Bala’s filmography, a male protagonist who is actually ‘normal’. But he makes up for it with the characterization of the female lead – bold and unusual in its own way – deviating from his standard ‘loosu ponnu’ template. And understandably, Sasi Kumar and Varalaksmi play these characters with contrasting demeanors. While Sasi is restrained for the most part, Varalakshmi cuts loose as the crass, loud-mouthed dancer with a heart of gold.
Bala films are known for holding back the dramatic crux at least till the half way point. Left in the dark, we tend to rely on the sub-plots to keep us on the hook. There are a couple of interesting ones here like the dynamics between a hurtful son and a genius-father in denial, and the plight of misunderstood artists who are driven to the edge. But these are all staged with a lingering sense of predictability. The dance sequence, which was a riot the first time around, becomes repetitive when staged at regular intervals. The moment alcohol splurging, filthy rich landlords hire the gang for a performance in Andaman, we sigh at the possibility of a sexual advancement. And it happens. Even worse, the aftermath is equally foreseeable. The second Sooravali gets her foot punctured by a nail; we pray that she doesn’t stage a bloody road show with it, for her sweetheart. And within minutes, we have her dancing her legs off and mouthing clichéd one-liners about her love. When we get the superb scene where Sannasi chides his father over his impracticality and the father sets out to prove himself; we know the end is near for the old man. And the man goes on to breathe his last. The moment, the hero decides to sacrifice his love for Sooravali for her secure future, we know that girl’s beau is going to be a sadist. And, the first half ends with the husband rolling a joint and smoking it on the night after the wedding. Come on Bala, some of the moments do work individually, but what about novelty… Shouldn’t we expect to be surprised?
From there on, the film becomes more of an exercise in emotional manipulation than cinema. Ilayaraaja is brilliant as usual, but seems to be dictating the mood of the scenes much more than the actual writing. And as we impatiently wait for Sannasi to go searching for Sooravali, we are subjected to more contrived scenes detailing the troupe’s predicament. And eventually when the showdown begins, we are supposed to feel for the bizarre turn of events. We are supposed to root for Sannasi. None of this happens. Instead, the excessive violence feels forcefully thrust and wrong on many levels. It’s as if the entire narrative was structured to arrive at this gruesome scene, the one where the hero cuts loose and finds absolution. It might have worked for Bala in the past, but why always the same story?