It has been a decade since Pa Ranjith debuted with his film ‘Attakathi’, a seemingly simple rom-com following the life of a hopeless romantic. Since then, Pa Ranjith has been one of a handful of directors responsible for revolutionising Tamil cinema and subverting the discourse surrounding caste, with his groundbreaking films ‘Madras’, ‘Kabali’ and ‘Kaala’. Last year’s ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’ garnered much acclaim despite being released on streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ranjith seems to have come full circle with his latest release ‘Natchathiram Nagargirathu’, as he returns to the subject of love. Through this, we witness the extent of his development as a filmmaker. The politics of love were hidden in the background of ‘Attakathi’, whereas in ‘NN’, Ranjith brings all the guts and glory of love to the forefront.
Even in his more political films, Ranjith’s romantic subplots stand out as a cut above the rest in Tamil cinema. He composes these brilliantly, with thoughtful writing and fleshed out, believable characters. ‘NN’ feels like Ranjith inviting the viewer into his own thought process, fully breaking down his perspectives on the topics of love, art, politics, gender, sexuality, tradition etc. He finds the perfect vehicle for it with a progressive, unapologetically artsy theatre troupe, who organically create a musical. We watch as Pa Ranjith delineates his creative process: the germination of an idea from a single sentence, to developing themes and motifs and plot through trial and error, to researching his work with real life accounts. Ranjith’s films always have bittersweet but optimistic endings, which is also discussed during the evolution of the creative process, in the quiet hope that life will imitate art.
Following the precise and deliberate craftsmanship of ‘Sarpatta Parambarai’, Ranjith seems to have gone the polar opposite direction with a free-flowing camera and experimental filmmaking techniques. The first shot itself is an amalgamation of multiple influences: we open on an image of Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, with Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ playing in the background, before the camera tracks down and rests on a couple in bed, in a frame reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s ‘Love’ (Noe’s fingerprints seem to be all over this film, especially in the chaos of the climax). This first shot alone is such a singular vision in Tamil cinema, and the film only grows from here. A rainbow of colour explodes from every inch of the screen constantly, which can easily be brushed aside until it is made thematically relevant later in the film (Ranjith pulled off a similar trick in the climax of Kaala, which still remains one of my favourite Tamil film endings of the last decade).
Of course, this would not have been made possible without the aid of a stellar cast and crew. The two highlights of the cast are Dushara Vijayan’s Rene and Kalaiyarasan’s Arjun. Dushara Vijayan’s Rene may be Ranjith’s best written character yet, clearing an already high bar with ease. Kalaiyarasan seems to have mastered the role of the foil (someone used to contrast the protagonist), and is certainly a great character choice to move through the majority of the film alongside. A scene where Rene makes an interesting choice regarding a fellow colleague’s future is when the film truly started to win me over. The other lead role, Kalidas Jayaram’s Iniyan, felt strangely underwritten in comparison, which could be a subversion of the sideline relegation usually saved for heroines in Tamil films. The supporting cast put in solid work, especially Charles Vinoth’s lovable Sekar. Tenma’s background score is great too, and my favourite song from the soundtrack is ‘Kadhalar’, aided by the magnificent performance of the opening night. The rest of the soundtrack is, unfortunately, not quite as memorable. The experimental style does lend itself to a wide array of techniques and ideas, a few of them not quite hitting the mark as well as they may have been intended.
Issues have been raised regarding the film’s promotions, which played up the LGBTQIA+ theme of the film, which was not as prominent as the adverts may have insinuated. A section of the third act of the film delves into caste politics as we follow Arjun back to his hometown. This portion of the film brings to mind a line from earlier in the film, on the regressive state of love and romance in the Indian subcontinent. When there is a fundamental issue with two heterosexual people of the same race being in a relationship, there is a lot of work to be done before we reach a place of harmony and tranquility. The film puts forth Ranjith’s sociopolitical thesis on building a utopia, and hence character and plot take a backseat to ideology and themes, which have often been the case with his films.
In the review for ‘Thiruchitrambalam’, I claimed the film was grounded in the 21st century. If so, ‘NN’ is the first chapter of the New Testament for the portrayal of love in Tamil cinema. Pa Ranjith has only continued to impress me with every subsequent film. I would recommend this film if you enjoyed films like ‘Super Deluxe’, ‘Taramani’, and ‘Pariyerum Perumal.'
Available to stream on Netflix.
Krishna’s rating: 4 stars
Official trailer for the film below.