Jun 04 2012
After Mouna Raagam and Naayagan, Manirathnam was one of the most promising directors on the Tamil cinema landscape. But all his movies so far had dealt with serious drama with the only levity coming from their youthful romances. So Agni Natchathiram came as a complete surprise. At the film’s heart is still drama with two warring half-brothers and the families caught between them. But Manirathnam handles it in light fashion and with Ilaiyaraja and P.C.Sriram by his side, gives us one of the finest, most stylish entertainers we’ve seen.
Ashok(Karthik), who is unemployed and job-hunting, and Gautham(Prabhu), who is in training to become a policeman, are half-brothers who can’t stand each other. While Ashok is pissed off that people don’t see his mom as his dad’s legal wife, Gautham is irritated that his dad has a second wife and splits his time between the two houses. As the brothers’ hatred for each other rises, their dad Vishwanath(Vijayakumar) is appointed as a one-man commission to investigate the chemical factory being run by local bigwig Chidambaram(Umapathy).
Manirathnam beautifully captures the rising intensity in the relationship between the Prabhu and Karthik. From the first wordless meeting when Karthik drops off a drunk Vijayakumar at Prabhu’s house, to the verbal duel when Prabhu arrests Karthik, to the final full-blown fisticuffs, the encounters between the two crackle with tension. The catalysts for the rising tensions between them occur naturally and smoothly and the camera angles, the slo-mo shots and the background score make sure that we feel the tension flowing between the two.
The other characters react to the situation in different ways and illustrate the mellower aspects of the situation. There’s Vijayakumar who’s responsible for the situation and tries to keep both families happy without much success; there’s Jayachitra and her daughter who have accepted the situation and are happy with what they have; and there’s Sumitra who remains stoic but expresses her displeasure very clearly and sharply. Whether its Jayachitra asking for Sumitra’s help to help bail Karthik out or Prabhu helping Karthik’s sister out, the various interactions between these characters are wonderfully written as they experience conflicting emotions towards one another.
With 2 bold heroines, the film’s romances don’t have much depth but make up for that with cuteness and humor. With Prabhu staying dignified in his policeman persona, its upto Amala to infuse their romance with fun and she passes with flying colors sneaking a smoke with her friends, showing up at Prabhu’s house at dawn to confirm his love and asking inappropriate questions. The Karthik-Nirosha track starts off in a fun way as she teases him by proposing to him and continues in the same vein though some sentiments peek in as they realize that they have something in common.
The comedy track with V.K.Ramasamy and Janakaraj is an annoyance and not just because it has such a flimsy link to the main track. Though it has the line(“En Pondatti Oorukku Poiduchu…”) that has attained cult classic status over the years and includes a few madcap moments (V.K.Ramaswamy swaying in front of the projector to block Janakaraj’s family from seeing the adult film on the screen is one), the track as a whole is crass and vulgar with very few laughs. We can be happy that Manirathnam did this only once more (in Idhayathai Thirudaathey) before abandoning the separate comedy track.
Karthik and Prabhu fit their roles perfectly. Karthik brings out the frustration about his position correctly and his roguish nature finds an outlet both in his encounters with Prabhu and his romance with Nirosha. Prabhu is more controlled, again both when going up against Karthik and when romancing Amala, and it suits his character. Amala is at her sweetest and the combination of innocence and forthrightness makes her spontanrous comments totally adorable. Nirosha looks glamorous and is quite uninhibited as she romances Karthik. Vijayakumar, Sumitra and Jayachitra fit their roles perfectly while Umapathy makes a very different villain with his smooth talking.
Manirathnam’s previous films were strong dramas where the music, cinematography and other technical aspects played a strong but supporting role. But Agni Natchathiram’s lighter tone and approach allows the technical aspects to play a more important role and lets the people behind them to show off and call attention to themselves. And Ilaiyaraja and P.C.Sriram rise to occasion with elan to make the sequences pure audio-visual delights.
Ilaiyaraja delivered some of his best soundtracks for Manirathnam and the combination once again produces an amazing soundtrack here. Raja Rajadhi Raja… is one of those songs that could be called a cult classic. The beat-heavy, catchy tune was on everyone’s lips when the audio was released and it has lost none of its charm. The backlighting makes everything soft, the empty Egmore train station provides a wonderful backdrop and the simple dance steps are cool and casual (a thin, clean-shaven, almost-unrecognizable Prabhu Deva is one of the dancers here). Ninnukkori Varnam… is another gem with its soft, hummable tune and strong interludes. Amala looks gorgeous and the disco lighting creates some interesting images as she dances around. But its Rojappoo… that allows her to show off her flexibility as she executes some impressive splits. The indoor swimming pool is bathed in soft light to create a dreamy look for Oru Poongaavanam… and the camera captures every droplet with clarity as Nirosha dives, swims and dances. Thoongaadha Vizhigal… and Vaa Vaa Anbe… are melodious duets picturized in constrasting ways. The former focuses on Prabhu and Amala indoors while the beach looks inviting in the latter as Karthik and Nirosha frolic in the sand and the water.
Aside from the songs, the snippets of background music convey the mood perfectly throughout the movie. The Karthik-Prabhu encounters are the most showy with the beats and the fast music capturing their enmity. But the other pieces that convey romance(Prabhu-Amala’s meeting in the gym), sentiments(when Sumitra is hit by the flying stone), playfulness(when Nirosha taunts Karthik) and action(the climax) elevate the scenes remarkably. The same holds true for P.C.Sriram’s cinematography. Even simple scenes(like Vijayakumar sitting in the rain in Karthik’s house) are transformed into beautiful paintings with his lighting, staging and framing. He uses backlighting in a number of scenes, giving them a dreamy quality and many of his shots(like the shard of glass breaking off in the window) are vivid and enhanced by the slo-mo.
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