Navarasa: Not all stories sizzle; some excel, others short on substance

Navarasa's poetic exploration of the nine rasas falls flat because some of the short films, out of the nine, lack depth or nuance of any kind. This anthology is just a light, breezy weekend fare, don't expect it to set you on a path of reflection

Payasam, Summer of '92, Karthik Subbaraj's Shantih & Arvind Swami's debut directorial, Roudharam are the shorts that shine in this anthology that started streaming on Netflix on August 6

Emotions can let you down, play havoc with your life. Once in a while, you may want to take a hard, dispassionate look at them and get ruminative.

Mani Ratnam’s ‘Navarasa’s poetic exploration of the nine rasas or emotions of compassion, disgust, wonder, veniality, crazy love, laughter etc., has no scope to walk down that road of reflection. This is because this anthology has a motley mix of short films which are extremely stylish, with great music, mesmeric frames, visually stunning shots and characters that draw your attention like Delhi Ganesh’s drenched-in-jealousy uncle in ‘Payasam’ or the reckless, empathetic LTTE soldier Bobby Simha in ‘Peace’ or an enraged, traumatised teenager in ‘Roudhram’.

But some of the films just don’t work and you want more in the end. But, is this the way of anthologies on OTT? This much and not more?

The anthology aptly opens with ‘compassion’ (an emotion we need in our troubled times) under the title ‘Edhiri’, which is based on a story by the master, Mani Ratnam himself and directed by Bejoy Nambiar. It starts off with a ‘Thirukkural’ quote which goes, “If it cannot hold and protect the trees, the soil is useless, If it cannot empathise and care for others, the heart is useless.”

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With this poignant beginning, a strong star-cast which includes the likes of the talented Vijay Sethupathi, Revathi and Prakash Raj to match, you expect magic to unfold. But the short lacks substance except for a brief dialogue probing the question of closure when you murder someone between Prakash Raj and Sethupathi that sizzles. Revathi’s mastery over her craft to silently convey stormy feelings raging inside her is also amazing. But the camera moves away and you wish the director had probed more into who they are.

Also watch: What does Maniratnam’s nine-part anthology Navarasa offer?

Sethupathi’s character releases his pent-up rage by murdering a man who shows lack of empathy over his brother’s suicide. But while hiding from the law in his village, his conscience irks him and he wallows in guilt and seeks retribution.

What did he achieve by snuffing out a man’s life and does he need the forgiveness of the victim’s wife who has been widowed? But the widow has her own demons to quell in the aftermath of the murder. Though Revathi shines in the role of the wife, the emotions of shock, grief, and guilt effortlessly flit across her face, there’s not much she can do for a mirage like character.

Priyadarshan’s ‘Summer of ’92’ has brilliant casting in the form of Yogi Babu as the successful comedienne who returns to his village to attend his old school function. His principal is played by the seasoned actor, Nedumudi Venu, who has a 30-year-old daughter (with her pet dog she had rescued) to marry off.

Despite being loaded with casteist slurs from Brahmin teachers which passes of as comedy, this short film is funny and is based on real-life incidents from the life of Malayalam actor turned politician, a former MP, Innocent Vareed Thekkethala.

As Babu is felicitated at the school function, he narrates his roguish behaviour at school that constantly got him in trouble and whacked on his backside. His final wayward act involves kidnapping a dog (Naas), which lands him in a load of shit (literally). It is nice that the dog too gets credit in the film since it plays a critical role.

Like Nedumudi, Delhi Ganesh too stands out for his performance in ‘Payasam’. The veterans seem to hold their own in this anthology, as Ganesh is brilliant as an uncle grappling with his sickening jealousy that is dragging him down. He is tetchy, hateful and bristles with anger at his nephew Subbu, who is being showered with good fortune. His nephew has hired Ganesh’s son as his servile assistant that further riles the father.

The setting of the short is a wedding unfolding in Subbu’s place and Ganesh attends it with churlishness as his own daughter (Aditi Balan) has been widowed soon after her marriage.

Ganesh oozes slime and angst and he is brilliant. The wedding scenes are also shot well reminiscent of Mani Ratnam’s memorable film, ‘Alai Payathey’. ‘Payasam’ is directed by Vasanth and is a favourite.

Also read: OTT: Mani Ratnam’s carnival of emotions & schoolboy’s murder

Twitter seems to be raving about Karthick Naren’s short ‘Project Agni’. It is about a scientist (Arvind Swami) who has crossed over to parallel universes, undid his past by tapping into his subconscious. He has large-sized round timers and pod like structures from which you feel an intelligent being from another universe may just pop up. The short is more a fan boy tribute to Christopher Nolan and other Hollywood sci-fi films.

It also comes across as pretentious and a little over-the-top but Swami and Prasanna (who plays his scientist friend from ISRO) plod on bravely and hold the film together.

But the next two shorts, ‘Shantih’ and ‘Roudhram’ are worth a watch. ‘Shantih’ is the work of Karthik Subbaraj, probably smarting from his ‘Jagame Thandhiram’ fiasco, is back in form with this short. It is about a couple of LTTE fighters holding the fort guarding the border of their land and a young Tamil child seeks their help to retrieve his little brother from the territory belonging to the opposite side.

It is well-made, much like the war movies of yore. ‘Roudhram’ is Arvind Swami’s debut directorial. With good friend Santosh Sivan cranking the camera, this short which goes back and forth in time, is memorable. Sivan takes you through some top shots to give a bird’s eye view of the shanties the protagonists live. The seashore shots in the beginning are beautiful for their colours and framing.

A maid who is deserted by her husband lives a hand-to-mouth existence with her teenage son and daughter. Her son harbours dreams and simmers with anger about his poverty, while the daughter plans to study hard to escape her shoddy life. After her son witnesses a scene that revolts him to his very being, he turns violent and kills a man.

Simultaneously, you see Riythvika as a cop with a raging temper and ready to beat her suspects into submission to retract a confession. “The heart that consumes the venom of anger becomes the forest blaze and destroys everything” is a quote for this short. There’s a lot happening here and the music composed by A R Rahman keeps up the tempo.

Also read: With mega films signed up, Suriya is the busiest actor in Kollywood now

‘Inmai’ on fear is strange, plotless and borders on the bizarre. While ‘Thunitha Pen’ lacks fire. The last short is director Gautam Menon’s ode to intense infatuation and desire – ‘Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru’. This one is simply a Gautam Menon film – it brims over with good music and intense moments between the couple (Suriya and a pretty, pert Prayaga Martin). At one point, Suriya is taken aback when she tells him that she is just 22-years old.

Er, that is awkward since Suriya doesn’t seem to fit the bill of even a 32-year-old struck by love at first sight he plays in the film.

The romance that springs up between the two seems like a postcard  one. Great for pictures and pretty visuals. Menon however manages to effectively capture that feeling of “instant attraction” between the couple well.

In all, ‘Navarasa’ is entertaining fare but don’t delve in for some meaningful content swayed by the raag about rasas and the big names of Tamil cinema that helm this anthology.

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