Sunday, July 13, 2014

Avan Ivan: This guy, that guy, and the other guy, and some women, too.

The first and only real dance number in Avan Ivan features Walter (Vishal Krishna) disguised in his feminine avatar dancing among the ladies in celebration of the zamidar's (G.M. Kumar) birthday. When Walter’s cover is blown, he lifts his skirt up over his head like a lungi and keeps on going until the blows from ladies force him to rush up behind the zamidar’s throne for protection. It’s funny, but why? Because a man is acting as a woman? Because our expectations have been thwarted? Because exaggerated movements are just funny? A combination of all of these?

Comedy seems to get very little attention from film critics or other cultural commenters, unless they’re telling you why this and that shouldn’t be funny. Popular films are brushed aside with a sigh and perhaps a long essay or two lamenting the fact that “low” humor is still so popular. Our bodily functions aren’t funny; our cultural habits aren’t funny; stupid people aren’t funny; puns aren’t funny; profanity isn’t funny; and outsiders aren’t funny (and, in fact, shouldn’t even been seen unless we’re pitying them). Nothing is funny except maybe some references to old films or skewering of tropes seen as old-fashioned or cliched.

In Avan Ivan Bala goes balls out in making a film just as brash and heartbreaking as anything else he’s done, just with more overt comedy added.
The story, such as it is, revolves around two half-brothers: the aforementioned Walter and the bleached blond Kumbudren Samy (Arya). Most of the film is spent tracking the love-hate relationship between the two of them, as well their pursuit of their respective lady loves Police Constable Baby (Janani Iyer) and slightly dim college student Thenmozhi (Madhu Shalini). Lurking in the background is the half-brothers relationship with the zamidar, who has more or less adopted them as surrogate sons.

What works the best in the film are all the character set-pieces. Bala, as he always does, showcases all sorts of wonderful actors we might not otherwise see, except in token roles. The two actresses playing Walter and Kumbudren Samy’s mothers are hilarious, especially glamorous 1980s heroine Ambika as Walter’s cigarette smoking, foul-mouthed mother Maryamma. Even 30 years past her heyday in a drab sari and no make-up, Ambika still has oomph. She spits out rapid fire insults with a deliciously dry wit at Kumbudren Samy’s mother, played by dancer Prabha Ramesh, who at one point, throws out her classical training to join Arya in a furious victory dance, as they march up the main street in their colony accompanied by a brass band. He can barely keep up with her.

Is it crass to show two respected, veteran actresses hurling insults at each other? Yes, but it’s also liberating. Bala makes them a target of fun but no more than any other characters. We’re not laughing because they’re women “of a certain age” on screen but because they are funny. And, what’s more, these two women radiate the power and self-confidence that only women “of a certain age” have, a confidence and power all too often lacking from films obsessed with bodies of teenaged and very young women.

The other two main actresses in the film are given equally good treatment. The slight Police Constable Baby has a spine of steel inside her slender frame and while the dim Thenmozhi is stupid like a fox. Arya and Madhu act out a typical, if more overtly stupid, version of the man-stalks-girl-until-she-gives-in-trope while Vishal has to court Janani at least partly in his feminine avatar, a delicious gender mind-fuck because Vishal is a good foot taller than Janani and much beefier. To see this substantial feminine figure actively seducing a much slighter, more masculine figure in a police uniform is a sight to behold.

It’s also worth mentioning the chubby kid who plays the role of Greek chorus, often showing up with Kumbudren Samy to laugh at things he says or cry or provide other crucial audience stand-in functions. He was really fun to watch and added a lot of energy to the scenes he was in.

But the three key figures of the film are avan, ivan, and the zamidar. Kumbudren Samy is the more straightforward comedy role, your typical slacker, trickster type, and Arya plays up his more disagreeable qualities with aplomb. Walter is more sympathetic if only because he’s more pathetic. Walter reminded me of something I heard Judd Apatow say about making comedy films, that you have to care about what happens to the characters or you’ll lose the audience. We can’t just laugh at losers for 2.5 hours, the losers have to have something that makes us root for them even while appreciating it when they get hit in the crotch with a football. Judd Apatow’s comedy isn’t to everybody’s taste but there is something equally compelling and pathetic about Steve Carrell’s as the 40-year old virgin. We recognize that he deserves to get shit on for being pathetic but we still like him and are glad when he has a happy ending.

Kumbudren Samy is content to be a slacker but Walter, like the 40-year old virgin, has big dreams--he wants to be a star--and Vishal draws us in to make us care about his big dreams, too. Bala works this dynamic so well that when Walter finally gets a chance to strut his acting chops in front of superstar Suriya, we’re on the edge of seat with nerves. We want him to succeed and when Walter fails at typical filmi herogiri it’s like a sucker punch to the gut. But when he gets a second chance… to perform the nine emotions of traditional theater, we all cheer with him. It’s an earned moment.

Lurking behind all the action is the zamidar. His birthday celebrations open the film and another ceremony closes it. The zamidar, like Walter, is somebody we laugh at without realizing we’re being drawn into empathize with him. G.M. Kumar is a man of substantial girth and he carries it like a man entitled to take up space, which, as we eventually find out, is about all he has left--his girth and his entitlement. When the film does finally take a heartbreaking turn for the Bala, it’s all carried on G.M. Kumar’s big, fat body in a performance that’s one of the bravest and most honest that I’ve seen in years.

Avan Ivan is more than just a comedy film, it’s a comedy film by Bala and it’s exactly as funny and as tragic as that would imply. I found it to be a very enjoyable film and laughed and cried at all the right places. I’m not sure what the reaction to the film was at the time except that it was “mixed” but if I was to pick on one thing it would be the pacing towards the end. The turn from pure comedy to a more Bala-style mixture of pathos and comedy comes a bit too late and it may have thrown some of the audience expecting a more traditional comedy film. But I didn’t mind that switch in tone at all, in fact I quite liked it.

While Avan Ivan isn’t my favorite Bala film, I think it’s a fine addition to his body of work, just as compassionate and as naked as anything else he’s done... only with more jokes thrown in. And I, for one, and always ready to enjoy a good laugh.

(Anybody who has seen the film knows I’ve talked around a major spoiler and I did that on purpose because it’s nice to be surprised every once in a while. But there is something really good to talk about so maybe in another post I’ll dig into it.)

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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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