I went into 3 with only one expectation - that I would be hearing “Kolaveri Di” at some point. I knew that the film starred Rajini’s son-in-law Dhanush along with Shruti Hasaan. And from the trailers, I had the vague idea that it was going to be a romance. I was not expecting to have my heart ripped out and handed to me. I was not expecting to be so charmed by Shruti. And I was not expecting to come home unable to gather my thoughts on what I had just seen. 3 is a complex film, putting a youthful romance in the larger context of society and weaving in some interesting meta-narrative analysis on the nature of the film hero himself.
[And please be forewarned: It’s going to be difficult for me to talk about this film without some crucial spoilers. If you are planning on seeing the film (which I recommend) and don’t want to know anything about the plot, you might want to wait until after watching to read this but I will warn you before I reveal anything really important.]
3 opens with a funeral. We see Janani (Shruti Hasaan) comatose with grief, lying on a couch in a modern, upscale apartment, surrounded by family. She begins to reminisce and we flash back about ten years go to the start of her relationship with Ram (Dhanush). And the first half of film continues switching between Janani fondly remembering her past with Ram and trying to make sense of his sudden death in the present.
Janani is a decent girl from a normal middle-class family. Her father is overly protective; her mother wants the family to move to the US to make more money; and her sister loves her very much. Janani even has friends - including this one (Assamese?) actress I swear I’ve seen in other things before. They ride their bikes to school.
Ram is from a wealthy family. He has a driver. He has indulgent but loving parents and a pack of good friends.
A third main character enters post-interval - Ram’s friend Senthil (Sunder Ramu) - and the mystery deepens. Senthil had been inseparable from Ram for the last few weeks of Ram’s life but now Senthil has gone missing and Janani wants to know why. Why did Ram die? Why is Senthil in hiding? And, most importantly, why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di?
First things first, the pacing of 3 is flawless, for which writer-director Aishwarya Dhanush deserves huge kudos. Dealing with flashbacks is tricky. Are we, the audience, supposed to be keeping an eye out for clues? Is the flashback device just there for show? In 3, the flashback sequences felt so immediate and deep that I would forget we were watching a flashback and would then be sucker-punched in the gut when the scene would cut from a tender moment between Janani and Ram to Janani curled up on her bed deep in grief - suckerpunched exactly as the filmmakers intended. What the flashbacks give us is context. The mystery of Ram’s death may be the driving force behind the narrative but would it have as much of an impact if we weren’t acquainted with all the people who surround him and their love for him? (No, it wouldn’t.) And throughout the film, our emotions go on a rollercoaster ride of elation to grief to heart-stopping fear to frustration and back around again.
Secondly, the direction by Aishwarya Dhanush was wonderful and she has an eye for character moments and for getting her actors to convey things without dialogues. As an example, two scenes that really stood out for me were Janani and her younger sister sneaking up to the roof of the building to meet Ram. Janani leading with the younger sister perfectly following her movements - the two completely in sync. It was a such a sweet scene, directed with light humor, and one that captured the sisterly bond perfectly. You can see that the two would do anything for each other. Another moment had Janani’s mother visiting Janani for the first time in the newlyweds’ expensive new apartment. The camera flashes so we see Janani has traded her old earrings for new and very expensive gold ones and then tracks to the sindoor (is it the same word in Tamil?) in Janani’s hair part. Janani is married and wealthy now and Janani’s mother isn’t quite sure how to react to her daughter. Small moments like this are scattered through the film, adding a lot of richness and depth to characters that, in other films, would be two-dimensional cut-outs.
And, thirdly, the music by Anirudh Ravichander is phenomenal. Every song fits perfectly and the background music is also really well done. I’m apt to tune out during love ballads but I enjoyed every single song. The standouts for me were the sweet “Idhazhin Oram” which captures the giddiness of youthful romance and the obligatory club song, “Come On Girls.” The picturizations were a fun mix of traditional tropes and more naturalistic themes. There was dancing but they didn’t really go to fantasy settings. There was lipsyncing but not all the lines were lipsynced - and, if I’m not mistaken, at one point Shruti charmingly lipsyncs the male lines to the love duet “Nee Paartha Vizhigal.”
[At this point I’m going to talk about the mystery, I’m not going to spoil the plot but I will discuss part of the answer, so please skip ahead if you haven’t seen the film.]
The real meat of the narrative is, of course, the reveal of the mystery. Why did Ram die? It turns out that Ram had a schizophrenic break with reality and the second half of the film, narrated by Senthil, tracks Ram’s decoupling from reality. Dhanush’s performance is genuinely scary and the tension just ramps up and up and up until the final tragic scenes.
How do you love somebody with a severe mental illness? How does a person with a severe mental illness show their love?
Ram, Senthil, and Janani wrestle with these questions through the second half of the film.
In full disclosure, perhaps 3 wouldn’t have touched me as much if I didn’t have somebody with a similar severe mental illness in my family but, as it is, a lot of the issues that were raised really rang true for me. If you have never visited a long-term mental hospital, it’s hard to really understand what that future would be like for somebody. If you have never had to synthesize two sets of memories about a person, two different personalities, maybe 3 won’t make as much sense. But maybe 3 can help you understand because I think the filmmakers really did an excellent job capturing all the nuances.
The other issue raised with Ram’s schizophrenic break was meta-narrative and, I thought, tracked with Anniyan and the idea of the “Hero” as an damaged personality. Much like it’s Vikram’s alternate personal “Remo” who does the filmi romancing in Anniyan, Ram’s violent alternate persona is the one who bashes the rowdies in 3. The fight scene that results is an incredible bit of filmmaking - not just for being a boss fight scene - but because if it had been a different film, the fight would have seemed normal in context instead of evidence of Ram’s monstrosity.
Even with all that wonderful narrative stuff and direction and music, the film wouldn’t have been as effective with some excellent performances from the three leads.
I had never seen Dhanush in anything before but I was really smitten with him. Dhanush is a whippet thin bundle of energy. You can almost feel him vibrating with his unrequited romantic feelings early in the film and, later on when things take a darker turn, that same energy becomes scary as he loses control of it. Ram is an open fellow who keeps his heart on his sleeve and it’s easy to see why the buttoned-up Janani falls for him. I did, too.
Shruti Hasaan has really grown on me as an actress. I’ve now seen four of her films. She showed some potential in her debut Luck but was massively unappealing in fantasy extravaganza Anaganaga O Dheerudu. With 7aum Arivu and now 3, I think I can safely say that I think Shruti does a fine job playing real girls. I really liked her Janani and I thought Shruti did a nice job playing a girl who is “decent” and kind of shy but who has a backbone. Janani isn’t going to be punching anybody in the face but she is strong enough to go up and tell a pack a boys to just leave her alone. I have to admit that it was also quite refreshing to see a heroine who was so calm. I like bubbly girls as much as the next person but Janani’s calm, collected personality made her outbursts just that more effective.
Lastly, there is the wonderful Sunder Ramu who had the thankless task of playing “friend.” A huge shoutout to you, Sunder! He walked the line between concern, fear, and affection with ease. And more than anything else, it was Sunder’s reaction shots to various events that would start my eyes tearing up. His kicked-puppy expression is just heartbreaking!
The minor characters, some of whom I’ve already mentioned, were also enjoyable. The little girl playing Janani’s sister was great. The guy playing Ram’s father was very lovable. And the guy in the yellow shirt playing the horn in the “Kolaveri Di” song sequence was a scene-stealer! Who is that guy?!
If you are looking for a timepass or a film to laugh at or a simple romance, then 3 is not the film for you. It’s a slow moving and deeply emotional story that rewards close viewing. In some ways, it’s almost a shame that “Kolaveri Di” broke so big because 3 was not really built to sustain that kind of mass audience - not the way Dabangg could carry the popularity of “Munni.” Still, I’m very glad I got a chance to see the film in theaters. It may only be April but 3 is definitely my favorite film of the year so far.