Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Indru Netru Naalai: Time travel with all the timey-wimey bits left in.

Hi, friends. I'm sorry it's been so long between updates. Things have been busy. I attended two funerals last week, one for my auntie and one for a dear family friend. Both had been sick for some time but that doesn't make it easy to say good-bye. I will miss them both. So maybe I am feeling more sentimental than usual but there was something so sweet and human about this movie. I liked that there wasn't any boring explanation of the fake science going into the time machine and I liked that the adventure was on such a human scale. Maybe you will prefer something more epic but for me this movie hit the spot. Please enjoy my write-up!

Most time travel stories aren’t really about time travel, instead using the time travel conceit for variations on the classic fish out water scenario, sending somebody from our era backwards or forwards in time. Whether it’s Harman Baweja in Love Story 2050 or Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the drama in the story arises from the clash of cultures rather than from a real engagement with timey-wimey issues.
Time doesn’t really enter into most time travel films.

One of the best time travel movies I’ve seen, one that actually deals with time, is this movie called Primer about two garage tinkerers who figure out the secret of time travel. What I loved about the two men at the center of Primer was that they do with a time travel machine what any ordinary person would do with a time travel machine--i.e. use it myopically and selfishly. Nobody is time traveling from the future to tour ancient Rome in Primer, which is part of what made that film seem so realistic. If you got a time machine, what would you do and see? Probably, much like the two men at the center of Primer, and the two men at the center of Indru Netru Naalai, you’d only go back into the near past and you’d only be doing so to get some sort of leg up on your “present day” friends. Because if we’re honest, sightseeing in ancient Rome would probably be super stinky and, besides, nobody took credit cards.

Indru Netru Naali, like Primer, is a time travel film about the trouble people would almost certainly get up if we were able to mess around with time. (Fair warning: some plot spoilers ahead!) Elango (Vishnu Vishaal) is an ordinary 20-something slacker. He lives with his mom, pals around with his astrologer friend Pulivetti Arumugam (Karunakaran), and is dating a wealthy girl named Anu (Mia George). Elango has no job but he does have a lot of ideas for businesses… none of which he can get funded. Meanwhile, Anu’s father is being pressured by a super-tough rowdy named Kuzhandaivelu (P. Ravi Shankar), whose modus operandi is to use violence to pressure wealthy landowners into “selling” him their land i.e. giving him their land.

One fateful day, after Anu tells him it’s over unless he gets his act together, Elango and Arumugam are driving home after getting hammered at a local pub. Swerving to avoid a collision with an odd yellow car, the two drunk dudes end up with their car stuck in a ditch. They meet the driver of the yellow car, an eccentric mechanic played by T.M. Karthik. Elango and Arumugam are content to sleep off the alcohol and deal with the problem in the morning and the eccentric agrees. But their dozing is interrupted by the bright blue light of an unmanned time machine on a test mission! The eccentric figures out how to disarm the automation and take over the controls. He shows the other two how to “drive” the machine and the three men agree to share the prize equally. But the oddball can’t be trusted and he tries to take the machine for himself, electrocuting himself in the process.

At the same time as Elango and company are encountering the time machine, Kuzhandaivelu is having his own encounter… with the police. A fatal encounter.

There were many different directions this story could have taken from this point. I have to admit I was half-expecting a turn into Love Story 2050 territory in which the Hero’s true love would get killed by the villain pre-interval and he’d have to spend the second half figuring out how to get her back. I was very pleasantly surprised that this was not to be the case. Nor, despite the presence of a weird mechanic character, does the film venture into Back to the Future territory nor do we hit Bill and Ted-style farce. Elango and Arumugam have plans for the time machine alright but their plans are so delightfully prosaic that I could never have predicted them at all.

Arumugam is an astrologer so what better use of the time machine than to earn mega-cash making sure his predictions come true?

The pair of knuckleheads travels back and forth and back and forth changing things in time without concern for the present until a seemingly innocent change in the past has huge consequences for them in the future. Yes, Chekhov’s rowdy. Kuzhandaivelu is suddenly alive and well and still on the hunt to get Anu’s father’s land.

Elango and Arumugam are forced to come to terms with their irresponsibility and have to make some really tough decisions about what’s important to them (i.e. family) and what’s not (i.e. using a time machine to have preternatural predictive powers for monetary gain).

Indru Netru Naalai appears to be director R. Ravi Kumar’s first feature and what a way to make a debut. I really enjoyed the way he mixed elements of mainstream masala storytelling--a dangerous villain, a rich girl out of the hero’s league, a comedy sidekick--with the time travel plot device. Killing the main villain not even halfway through the film was such a fun and unexpected twist. How will he come back? Are they going to fight him in the past or future… or both?! Only in a time travel masala film could the hero enter the final fight against the villain and have the stakes raised by entrance of a duplicate villain from another time line. Two Kuzhandaivelus, one schlubby hero. It was intense.

The time travel also entered into the romance plot line where we see the hero wooing the heroine in a song picturization that didn’t feature flowers and Switzerland but with him taking her on a tour of the highlights of her life, past and future. The heroine doesn’t have a big role so I really appreciated that R. Ravi Kumar cared enough about her character to let the audience see that a) she’s a person not just a pretty lady and b) the hero sees her as a person, too. And, again, I also appreciated that the tour of Anu’s life was a very unexpectedly prosaic use of the time machine. Because of course most of us are more interested in our own pasts and futures than we are in some distant robot-dominated dystopian hell scape 100 years down the road--the eccentric mechanic cares about 100 years into the future, the rest of us just want to relive a handful of our favorite memories and maybe sneak a peek at who we’re going to marry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s totally, wonderfully human.

Speaking of humans, without the two at the center of Indru Netru Naalai, I don’t think the film would have worked quite as well for me. I’ve mentioned a few times how “ordinary” their use of the time machine was and that’s because the characters, as written, are pretty ordinary guys. The film wouldn’t have worked with a larger-than-life big name hero because going back in time to earn cash would have seemed too small scale but the film wouldn’t have worked with an actual ordinary guy because, to be honest, Elango is kind of a douchebag for much of the film. But as played by Vishnu Vishaal, we understand why people hang around Elango, Vishnu Vishaal is really just that likable. I believe I said as much when I wrote about Mundasupati but there is something really compelling about Vishnu. He crackles with charisma. There’s a spark in his eye, a swagger to his step. He seems so at ease in his own skin.

And Karunakaran was a great foil. I really enjoyed his character in Jigarthanda and found him just as engaging here. Playing the comedian-sidekick role, it would have been easy to go really loud and really broad and ruin the otherwise mellow tone of the film but Karunakaran nailed just the right amount of loudness. He had a bit of the fast-talking Santhanam comedy thing going on but in his own style.

I also particularly enjoyed T.M. Karthik as the eccentric mechanic. His character doesn’t actually do much in the film but he left a big impression. This guy is no “Uncle Ya” in a stupid wig. It just felt like there was a lot of unspoken backstory to him. Why is he the way he is? T.M. Karthik’s performance hinted at darker elements in his personality… so when he does try to backstab our hero, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Mia George as Anu was adequate. Like Karunakaran, P. Ravi Shankar was just the right amount of menacing, without going too broad. And there was one other character who really delighted me--a neighborhood auntie who visits the mechanic’s repair shop to get her blender fixed. I’m not sure who that actress is but she had fabulous comic timing. All of her interactions with T.M. Karthik and the rest were comedy gold. Just the matter-of-fact way she went about her business, who cares about scientific breakthroughs when there is dinner to prepare?! What, are you going to discover things on an empty stomach?!

Indru Netru Naalai was a charming sci-fi film on a human scale. I really enjoyed it and was sad to see my time with the characters come to an end. I can’t wait to see what all of these guys do next.

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