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‘Maamannan’ movie review: Fiery premise, flaky results

Express News Service

Much like Karnan’s protagonist, Maamannan’s Adhiveeran (Udhayanidhi Stalin) boils in rage. It’s all he can do not to smash things and punch people. He might walk and talk and eat and train like a normal man, but you can feel anger/stress/pressure/call-it-what-you-will eating him from within. Mari Selvaraj, in arguably his finest first half yet, shows mastery when he shares affecting information about these characters. We learn that it has been 15 years since Adhiveeran said a word to his father, Maamannan (Vadivelu), and once that powerful detail is registered, Mari goes on to show us in black and white, the event that led to this crushing family dynamic. More than Pariyerum Perumal, more than KarnanMaamannan—in that first half—captures the depression and rage of being oppressed and stifled in a million different ways. You can’t drink water where everyone does. You can’t swim where everyone does. You can’t study where everyone does. You can’t sit. You can’t talk. You can’t look. And here’s how it gets even worse: You can’t even vent. When under such duress, how do you not implode into a flaming fireball of destruction?

And this is why the filmmaker won’t have Adhiveeran and friends cower in fear and docility. “Fight back!” as Adhiveeran, a martial arts trainer, tells his student. “Do not be a ‘kozhai’ to an ‘ayogyan’.” We saw this call for a fightback, through violent means if needed, in Karnan as well. While Adhiveeran is a martial arts trainer, the woman he’s interested in is a well-meaning upper-caste ally, Leela (Keerthy Suresh), who imparts education for free. Balam from Adhiveeran; budhdhi from Leela. The twin pillars of rebellion. And in case you don’t quite get the call for rebellion, there’s the quintessential Che Guevara tee.

I wish, however, that Adhiveeran’s martial arts prowess came in for sustained use in the film. As for Leela, I wish she came in for more sustained use. Towards the interval, when Adhiveeran rallies his allies for a vengeful act of vandalism, Leela joins in too—and I thought, “What an unusual visual to see a woman joining an angry group of self-righteous men as they smash some property about.” And yet—and this can be said of Mari’s previous two films as well—no one woman rises into the upper echelons of narrative importance, let alone match the significance of the main men. In Pariyerum Perumal, the main woman is a metaphor. In Karnan, she is a peripheral girlfriend. And now, in Maamannan, despite some initial promise, she turns into a tag-along who might be a source of motivation to the hero at some point. This is a strange, consistent miss for this thinking filmmaker.

Mari Selvaraj’s use of animals as metaphors is, by now, an expectation in his films. The pigs and their plight, in this film, stand for Maamannan, Adhiveeran, and their trampled people. This time, the dogs seem to stand for oppressors, but even they cannot escape the ire of Rathnavel (Fahadh Faasil). The docility of pigs on one side and the ferocity of dogs on the other is a picture in contrast. While on painting, even Adhiveeran’s hand-drawn images tell a story. We see him sketch a ferocious dog and it seems a strange image coming from his pencil… But he plays with our perception by making a careful addition—and suddenly, we see the dog in a new light. It’s a wonderful touch and an extension of his wish that pigs would learn to save themselves—which is, of course, a metaphor.

Fahadh is fantastic as the casteist psychopath, Rathnavel. The way he’s dressed in white, the way his facial hair is designed, the name given to him… it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a reimagination of Sakthivel from Thevar Magan. There are some father-son dynamics as well, with Rathnavel striving to live up to his late father’s expectations. Maamannan could well be seen as a story of two fathers, and their sons. The big difference, of course, is how Maamannan is so full of remorse, while Rathnavel and father seem to be, like your garden-variety psychopath, remorseless. In fact, Rathnavel is worse than his father (as acknowledged by the Chief Minister, played by Lal).

His psychopathy is in full display, particularly in the best portion of the film—that interval scene in which Maamannan, Adhiveeran, and Rathnavel explode off each other, while backed by a terrific AR Rahman score. At the heart of this scene is the overtly simple idea of a man sitting down. At one point, Fahadh is distraught—and it’s not because he has just been kicked by a man he considers to be inferior. It’s because another man he considers to be inferior has taken a seat in his presence. The politics of it all lends itself to irresistible drama—and the politics over who should sit and who shouldn’t gets explored later as well, when Adhiveeran comes storming into the CM chamber. It’s all a searing takedown of every leader, who expects those below him in the pecking order to remain standing in obeisance. It’s also a film critical of political parties that claim to work for the downtrodden while craftily never upsetting the status quo in order to preserve power.

These touches aside, it’s hard not to wonder what the casting of a political heir like Udhayanidhi Stalin (despite a no-problem performance) means in this film. It’s hard not to notice that when Udhayanidhi’s Adhiveeran is beckoned forward by a group of commoners—a scene shot and executed to communicate the sensations of a new leader—the sun features prominently in the shot. It’s hard not to notice how gentle the film is towards the Chief Minister portrayed in the film. It’s hard not to think about what it all means and why the film is as kind towards a powerful leader who seems to paint such a helpless portrait of himself.

Where the politics of the first half makes for such an entrancing, affecting experience, the same cannot be said about the journey the film takes post-interval. With the premise perfectly positioned for a clash of its pivotal three men, the film, in trying to present a larger solution, disassociates itself from these men and gets busy with capturing election shenanigans. Alliances are forged at the cost of dignity; news channels peddle their version of entertainment; and where I was, earlier, right inside the heads of these characters, I began to process the not-so-novel election charade from a distance. It all seems a tad convenient too. When some assistance comes Adhiveeran’s way, it feels a tad too orchestrated. When Maamannan records a video to fire up his campaign, the scene doesn’t feel as powerful as it should.  Even Rathnavel becomes a shadow of the menacing antagonist he was earlier. This means that despite Adhiveeran and Maamannan learning a crucial quality from each other—restraint and rebellion, respectively—there isn’t a whole lot of interpersonal drama to be experienced as the film tapers away to a tepid end.

Even if I walked out feeling like the film had gone astray, there are still enough powerful moments to make this a worthwhile experience. There are tasteful narrative echoes too. At various points, both Adhiveeran and Maamannan find themselves unable to understand how one person’s quest for justice ends up being derailed by a thousand opponents making it an issue of honour and pride. Another beautiful echo is how Maamannan, taking a moment to gather himself before resigning to his fate, finds a companion in Rathnavel doing something similar later.

I’ll remember the film for these tasteful details, sure, but if this film endures in my memory, it shall be mainly for how Mari Selvaraj has reimagined Vadivelu and reclaimed the dignity of his onscreen persona. Somewhere at the very beginning of this film, I was a tad wary of my own instinctive urge to laugh at the sight of Vadivelu, but I needn’t have worried at all, given how quickly the actor embodies this serious character. Mari Selvaraj doesn’t just stop by refusing to milk Vadivelu’s misery for humour; he makes us empathise and root for him. He utilises the actor’s singing prowess to fuel delicate emotional moments. He goes a step further and provides the actor with hero moments as well: Bringing out a gun in one scene, aiming it at Rathnavel in another, walking into an assembly… I could go on. But the most heroic is when Maamannan, the character, practises restraint. It’s a film in which Maamannan and his son, Adhiveeran, learn the difference between restraint and cowardice—and realise that they are both the better for it. The mere urge to fight, as advocated by Karnan and Adhiveeran, won’t do. It’s important to know the when and the how. Future Mari Selvaraj films will no doubt dig more about this—and there’s enough in the imperfect Maamannan to be excited by prospects.

Director: Mari Selvaraj

Cast: Vadivelu, Udhayanidhi Stalin, Fahadh Faasil, Keerthy Suresh

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

(This review originally appeared on

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