Cast: SJ Suryah, Regina Cassandra,
There’s a scene in Nenjam Marappathillai where Selvaraghavan (almost) steps into another Tamil auteur’s territory. There’s a blind man with black glasses, so you know which director I’m talking about. But there’s more. There’s the abundance of Christian imagery. We have a religious woman, a fundamentally good woman named Mariam (Regina Cassandra). If she’s named after the mother of Jesus, her situations are often paralleled with the Son of God. Let’s just say her life on this earth comes with a crown of thorns. Anyway, back to the old man. He offers Mariam some meen kuzhambu. He then sets off to buy some bread to go with it. I thought of the Lord’s miracle with loaves and fishes.
I also wiped an imaginary tear and thought: God bless our twisted auteurs! Finally, we are reaching a stage in our cinema where an eccentric authorial stamp is replacing “story” (nalla kathai) and “messaging” (nalla karuthu). Nenjam Marappathillai is far from perfect, but scene for scene, it’s a thrilling portal into the mind of Selvaraghavan. Some of you may remember the older film with the same name, directed by Sridhar. That was a simple reincarnation drama. This one’s a complex reincarnation drama. We may be witnessing the birth of Jesus all over again, and His “crucifixion” on Good Friday, and His subsequent Resurrection, so to speak. There’s a line in this Good vs. Evil story: Sorgam… naama paakara paarvai la dhaan irukku! Heaven is how we perceive it. The small irony is that a good part of the film takes place in some version of Hell.
That’s the mansion Mariam takes up employment in, looking after a young boy whose very rich parents have very little time for him. The very moment she walks through the gate, she feels some kind of supernatural shock. Her nose begins to bleed. But if people heeded these warning signs, horror movies wouldn’t exist—so Mariam carries on, bearing her cross (the one that hangs from a chain around her neck) and her Cross (the suffering she will put herself through in order to help the orphanage she was raised in). By the end, you may be left asking questions like: But what about that orphanage? But what about this child? And what happened to the blind man? Selvaraghavan 2.0 (or is it 3.0?) doesn’t believe in closure, and at least in this movie, this wasn’t a deal-breaker.
The man of the hell-house is named Ramaswamy (after our Lord Rama?) but prefers to call himself Ramsay (after the horror-specialist Ramsay brothers, or after the New Testament scholar, Sir William Ramsay?) The film is full of these question marks, which Selvaraghavan isn’t out to clarify. He isn’t out to make a regular “horror movie” either. Nenjam Marappathillai features a horrific act, sure, but tonally speaking it’s a brand new genre: horror + drama + laugh-out-loud comedy. The latter is courtesy SJ Suryah (he’s Ramaswamy, aka Ramsay), and he pitches his glorious performance at a level between Sathyaraj in his thagadu-thagadu days and Sivaji Ganesan at his hammiest. People describe Ramaswamy/Ramsay as MGR (he’s so generous), but watch him utter the word “rascal”, and it’s Sivaji you’ll remember. The “ras” is in one pitch. The “cal” is in another. It’s like his voice is climbing an aural staircase.
Selvaraghavan builds his OTT (in a good way) movie around this OTT performance to such an extent that we almost forget that Mariam was supposed to be the protagonist. Both halves of the film are a stunning series of set pieces (a conversation in the servants’ quarters, a song-and-dance in a police station), and after a while I stopped wondering if the “story” was making much “sense”. One avatar of Ramaswamy/Ramsay is a rock star bathed in neon colours (Arvind Krishna is the cinematographer), and that’s the character’s id. Or maybe it’s Selvaraghavan’s id. In a “straight” movie like NGK, these outrageous flourishes stick out. But in a genre piece like this, they crack open a window and let in much-needed air. They make the inevitable clichés breathe again.
Even Selvaraghavan’s trademark characterisation—where it’s less about a consistent “arc” than people dialling up that particular emotion at that particular moment—becomes an asset here. When Swetha (Nandita Swetha) keeps flipping between “wife who ignores her husband as he goes to work” and “wife who defends her husband to death”, it’s as unnerving as her character transformation at the end. (There’s a Big Twist is all I’ll say.) Selvaraghavan’s biggest triumph in Nenjam Marappathillai is in subverting the “nalla kathai”/“nalla karuthu” movie wisdom that we are supposed to root for the Good Guy and cheer on the destruction of the Bad Guy.
The most controversial plot point involves a rape, which refuses to provide the catharsis we expect. Again, I cannot say more, but I was equally stunned by how another female character reacts to it. The film has some pacing issues and I wished the Big Idea had been planted in the screenplay a little earlier. This is also a movie that plays with your head more than it touches the heart. (That’s not a problem as such, but it may be interesting to see how our audiences tune into aloof mind games.) But with all its issues, Nenjam Marappathillai—propelled by a grand Yuvan Shankar Raja score that matches the director’s intensity and eccentricity—is the best thing Selvaraghavan has made in ages. Maybe breathing fresh life into stale genre premises is really his thing.