Sunday, October 30, 2011

7aum Arivu: From Chennai (Chowk) to China

I’ve been having a few on-going discussions with various people about what goes into a good film. Can a film be good if it has a flawed story? (And what makes a good story, anyways?) Cinema is essentially an experiential medium - visuals, audio, editing, and acting all add their parts to making a film good or bad. On top of that, the shared experience of watching a film as part of an audience adds something to a film. Reading a written screenplay is a very different experience from seeing a film in a packed movie theater. I’m of the opinion that story is only one part of making a good film - so if the direction, cinematography, music, acting, and feel of a film are good, I do think it can make up for a flawed script.

I thought about all of these things again while driving home from the theater after watching 7aum Arivu because - though it does have an imperfect narrative - I think it's a good film.

Mixing science-fiction, historical fiction, and modern day masala into a pleasing - if occasionally lumpy - brew, 7aum Arivu is the story of two modern day young people - Aravind (Surya) and Subha (Shruti Haasan) - and one very old spirit, Bodhidharma, a 5th century Buddhist monk who brought ancient Tamil teachings to China. And as if the spirit of a 5th century Buddhist monk wasn’t enough worry about, Aravind and Subha must also fight against Chinese assassin Dong Lee (Vietnamese actor and martial arts expert Johnny Tri Nguyen) who has been sent into India under orders to begin the sinister sounding Operation Red.

As I saw it, the main theme of the film deals with the stresses of a cultural identity in this age of globalization and of a state proudly speaking out from under the twin-yokes of hundreds of years of colonialism and the cultural dominance of North India. Bodhidharma is the keeper of ancient Tamil knowledge that has been lost to the current generation with their Bollywood stars and Western clothes. Subha even has a line in the film saying something like, “We’re not Tamil like they were Tamil.” Throughout the film, we see Subha using her scientific (i.e. Western) training in service of her Tamil culture, a message that being modern does not mean throwing out cultural wisdom. Subha’s skills may solve the crisis but it’s her Tamil heart that leads her way.

Though, obviously, I’m not Tamil myself, I appreciated the message of cultural pride based on accomplishment. We Americans are subjected to (approximately) a billion messages of our cultural superiority every day but they come from a place of entitlement - as if we are special because we are special. Film after film has an American going over to foreign lands to “help” the natives become more like us. In contrast, Bodhidharma’s compassion isn’t forced on anybody. He helps the Chinese because they ask him and that’s just the kind of upstanding guy he is. And there is a deserved sense of pride when the first doctor sent abroad (as somebody joked) finally comes home to take care of his own people who have lost their way.

[Of course, I’m an outsider so I have no idea if that is how the film reads to somebody in Tamil Nadu and my interpretation is just that - my interpretation. But I will add that a line in the film proudly stating the Tamil language’s long history got quite a loud whistle from the crowd.]

Let’s begin with the good before I get to my issues with the film. First of all, the characters and performances were all great. Surya does double duty as everyman Aravind and the great Hero Bodhidharma and both characters were really well done. Aravind is your classic cheerful goof who gets thrown into something bigger than himself and has to discover inner reserves of strength to face it. Bodhidharma, on the other hand, is somebody special. He’s a Hero with six-pack abs, infinite strength of mind, and an infinite depth of compassion. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that within five minutes of Bodhidharma’s first appearance, he managed to bring tears to my eyes by curing a little girl of disease. Surya is majestic without being condescending; that’s what I call good.

Anybody who has been reading this blog for more than a couple days knows my extreme dislike of Shruti Haasan and I have to admit that going into the film, her role was the one I was most worried about. In the other films that I’ve seen Shruti in, her acting has relied more on flashing her abs than on connecting with the audience. She has also been prone to slathering on the glamour doll make-up like a Bollywood heroine, which has the effect of making the her look like a blow-up doll. I was extremely pleased to see that director A.R. Murugadoss muted the make-up, covered up the abs, and pulled a really naturalistic performance out of Shruti. And, quite unexpectedly, Subha ended up being one of my favorite parts of the film.

Subha is one of the most progressive heroines I’ve seen in commercial film (Indian or otherwise) and I was really impressed with a number of things about her character. First of all, she’s a genetic engineering student who is focused on her career, which I always approve of. She has friends that she cares about and talks to about things that aren’t boy troubles. She thinks fast in a crisis and - more importantly - the hero actually listens to her plans and goes along with them. Very interestingly, Subha’s main role as heroine is not to be Aravind’s love interest (although she is) but to be his partner in the adventure they go on.

As big bad Dong Lee, Johnny Tri Nguyen is very effective although he did not get to do nearly enough martial arts for my tastes. Dong Lee is essentially a human being taken to extreme levels of perfection - a strapping hunk with impeccable fighting skills and mind control abilities - but removed of conscience.

Having seen more than my fair share of things like Star Trek and Doctor Who and Dune, I am all to aware of the difficulties actors face when attempting to convey the fact that their characters are using their minds to control the actions of others. Go too far and it looks like you’ve studied at the Joey Tribiani School of Smell the Fart Acting but don’t go far enough and you look brain dead. I thought Johnny did a great job making the mind control powers believable. And when he did get to fight... *ka pow*

The supporting cast were all delightful - especially Shruti’s practical friend Malathi (Dhanya Balakrishna.) And we were treated to a special appearance from Guinness Pakru!

Other good stuff. I really enjoyed the both the lush pastoral feel of the China scenes and the bustling streets of Chennai. The hero introduction song “Oh Ringa Ringa” captures this especially well with (I think) an actual crowd of people dancing along with Surya - including a boatload of adorable aunties who look like they are having the time of their lives. Actually, the music in general was quite good - especially the incidental music, which added a lot of atmosphere - with the standout song being the earwormy “Yellae Lama.”

As for effects, while I’m sure That Other Movie had much more going on digitally, I enjoyed the stunts and camera tricks in 7aum Arivu because they were people-based not all digitally created. There was a fantastic street battle that squared off Surya against a zombified army of people and flying cars. And there was a nice wavy effect that went on during some of the martial arts battles.

There are pretty substantial rumors that Aamir Khan is going to be remaking this with A.R. Murugadoss and if he does there are two things that would really improve the film. (Warning: vague spoilers for the end of the film.) First of all, Bodhidharma needs to be brought back to life much earlier in the film than he is. This is the same flaw found in Chandni Chowk to China - the hero stays schlubby for far too long and we don’t get nearly enough badass. Suriya as Aravind does no fighting, which is a nice nod to his everyman status, but if Bhodidharam is the Hero, then he really needs to be seen more.

(Okay, you are safe to read again.) Secondly, it seems a shame to cast a guy like Johnny Tri Nguyen and not give him more fighting to do. There needed to have been more martial arts sequences in the second half of the film and not just chase sequences.

I’m sure Aamir will have plenty to say on that matter.

It will be interesting to see how the mythology of the film is changed to fit a broader audience, though. In the light of Shahrukh Khan’s Tamil act in That Movie, will we see Aamir pull the same Tamil act as Bodhidharma? I can only hope he doesn’t insist on the ridiculous wig and sloppy eating habits.

Is 7aum Arivu a perfect film? Not by a long shot but it is very enjoyable - especially for Surya fans, of which I am one. And I appreciated the leisurely pacing that gave us a chance to sink deep into A.R. Murugadoss's Chennai, a place worth visiting. And when one realizes that the theater next door is showing a North Indian guy playing distinctly uncool Tamil dude
Shekhar Subramaniam, the proud whistles for Tamil hero Bodhidharma are well-deserved, indeed.


OG said...

Hey FG,

I watched ezham arivu and this weekend and like your review of the film.

I also thought that ezham arivu had the highs and the lows.......much of it probably becoz of my own high expectation!

The first 20 mins were awesome to say the least. I dont think I have seen anything like this in an Indian production. Suriya as Bodhidharman was awesome and Ravi Chandran's camera work was fantastic!

The songs were good but I loved the first song; which showed many of the landmarks of my city.

Now to the what I did not like in the film:

1. The way the plot (situation) was handled by the people. It could have been better; seemed childish at times.

2. The first half (for me) meandered along and kinda lost its way. I would have preferred more action! I would have loved to see more martial arts in the film!

3. I guess ARM's main message in the film was to ask the "Tamilian" to stand up for himself (in India, Sri Lanka and the South East), which is a good thing. But at times, I felt he went overboard. Statements like Tamil is 20,000 years old etc does not mean anything! It has no scientific backing behind it.

The history of the tamil people/ the language is interesting becoz unlike ancient Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, the origins of the language and the culture are lost to time and we now can merely speculate about it. The sphere of ancient Tamil influence extended into a lot of territories.

If you are interested, I suggest that you read about the "Sangam Age" and the "Chola kingdom" in wiki, which can be called the Golden Ages of Tamil Culture to get some deeper insight into this film.

Filmi Girl said...

@OG Thanks for your comment!! I think we agree on most things.

2. The first half (for me) meandered along and kinda lost its way. I would have preferred more action! I would have loved to see more martial arts in the film!

I actually liked the romance part but I agree that the film was poorly structured. The base story was good and the characters and acting were good but the story did wander around.

That's why I said I liked visiting A.R. Murugadoss's Chennai. The film had some really great low-key moments - like Surya taking an elephant to the hospital and aunties dancing in the streets - but the narrative definitely needed work.

I bet Aamir Khan will fix some plot problems but I do wonder about how he is going to handle the Tamil-specific history aspect...

And YES!! More martial arts!!! It seems criminal to cast a guy like Johnny and have him mostly kill people with mean looks. ;)))

I ordered his Vietnamese film The Rebel and will definitely review it here.

Thanks for the book recommendations. I will look for them.

Your comments are enlightening, as always. :)

OG said...

Hey FG,

I have always wanted to ask you a few questions and I was hoping that you would answer them:

1. How, when and more importantly why do you follow and watch the Indian film Industry. I know that it requires an immense effort to write daily and I also know you must have been asked this question a lot of times :)

2. Do you only follow news from the filmi-duniya or do you also follow up on news about India itself? Understanding many of the things in our films requires an understanding of the country. So have the lines between reality/filmi world blurred?

3. I have read many of your reviews and your intro series to bollywood and I can see the research that goes into most posts. Why do it?

Asking these questions becoz I am just curious.... :)

Filmi Girl said...

@OG That is a whole can of worms! I started because I was interested and had nobody to talk to about Indian film in my real life.

I continue because I find it a worthwhile hobby; I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of writing and have made many friends.

You guys only see this part of me but I am really this passionate in all of my interests. (e.g. I have taught myself Japanese to better follow my favorite bands; attended "Twilight" fan meets; etc.)

And I actually do follow news of India but I try to limit my writing to film because I'm not Indian and I don't want to generalize about other people, you know? There are more than enough white people out there writing about "real" India... ("Eat Pray Love"? Barf.)

If anything, I'll use what I've learned about India to add context to a film review, which I think is okay - but not use film to explain India, which I am completely unqualified to do.

But, really, why do we do anything? I write this blog because I write it. It gives me a sense of purpose when I get up in the morning and I love the interactions and friendships I formed while writing it.

Does that answer your question?

OG said...

Yes it does FG!


Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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