Aayirathil Oruvan (Selvaraghavan, 2010)
See, here's the thing. I ordered Aayirathil Oruvan based on two (as usual) fairly shallow reasons:
- I had recently seen Paiyaa (which is one of those films I actually ADORE and tried to write up and couldn't because it was just too hard to translate my breathless inner sighs of joy into something coherent, so essentially, don't hold your breath for a review of that one) and have decided that Karthi may just be the guy to accomplish what Vikram couldn't, and get me actually consistently wanting to watch Indian films made outside of Mumbai. Karthi is my gateway drug into South Indian cinema, y'all! I LOVE HIM.
Southie boyfraaaand #1
- My Tamil friend and pretty much the only person I know in real life who ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS my “strange Bollywood hobby” told me that I would like this film for the “bad special effects and the zombies” (see, he obviously 'gets' me).
So I watched Aayirathil Oruvan...and it wasn't really what I was expecting (if you guessed I was anticipating some kind of cracked out zombie fest you'd be right, and if this kind of film exists in Indian cinema, by the way, please point me towards it, because I'm still up for cracktastic Indian zombie shenanigans). There's certainly a scene that could be interpreted as the highly anticipated “Tamil zombie fest”, along with scenes, from very early on, of graphic violence, cannibalism, along with a whole lot of dark magical peril (a booby-trapped desert, a village filled with snakes, killer sea creatures, spectres haunting enchanted ruins). But this film actually becomes a lot more horrifying and harrowing when it leaves the fantastical realm and addresses the real atrocities human beings callously and cruelly inflict in the name of selfish greed, or patriotism, or history, or just because they have power and other people don't. I'll get to this though.
Aayirathil Oruvan (which translates to “One in a Thousand”) is ostensibly a fantasy/historical epic, its narrative based in Tamil history.
It begins with the backstory:
The Cholas and Pandyas are two of the four ancient Tamil dynasties that ruled South India. In 1279 A.D. as the last great Chola dynasty is collapsing and the Pandya empire rises to take control, driving the Cholas out of their own territory, the Chola emperor sends his son and the Chola people to a secret location to hide them and ensure that the dynasty lives on. The Chola people take with them an idol that is sacred to the Pandyas. Though the enraged Pandyan army search every location, the Cholas, along with the stolen idol, seem to have vanished forever, waiting, as legend has it, for the day when a saviour will appear to them to lead them out of hiding.
Skip forward a few centuries to the present day, and people are still searching for the, now legendary, hidden Chola kingdom. Every person that has gone looking for it - based on ancient clues left by the original Pandyan soldiers seeking the hidden city - mysteriously vanishes. The latest person to go missing is an archaeologist: Chandramouli (Pratap Pothan) -so a search and rescue mission, to find both the missing archaeologist and the fabled lost city of the Cholas is organised by the Indian Government. The mission is led by Ravishekaran (Azhagam Perumal), a violent, aggressive Army officer, aided by driven, no-nonsense Anitha (Reemma Senn), an officer who soon reveals ulterior motives for wanting to find the Cholas; Chandramouli's estranged daughter Lavanya (Andrea Jeremiah) is recruited for her specialist archaelogical and historical knowledge of the Cholas and Pandyas. As the search and rescue mission turns far darker and more violent than it initially seemed, with the Army dropping like flies, circumstances throw an easygoing, MGR obsessed coolie, Muthu (Karthi) into the group against his will.
I'm a sucker for stories with an element of destiny about them, and so AO automatically won points for the thread of ''inevitability'' woven through the story – as the group face a variety of traps laid for them by the Cholas designed to prevent them from ever reaching the hidden kingdom, it is gradually revealed in flashes that no matter what the Army, or the individuals in the group do, their actions seem predetermined: everything that is happening seems to be happening in line with some greater plan. The question is: will they find the Chola kingdom, and what will happen when they do? If everything they are doing is destined, then what does the legend of the saviour mean, and could it be one of them?
Okay so here's the thing: yes, there are several scenes where the “epic” special effects are kind of...shoddy, and it's not cracktastically hilarious, it's just kind of...crappy. Yes, there were actually a few (okay several) moments in the film where the narrative veered from complicated and convoluted into...woah, just confusing. But I still really enjoyed this film, for a few reasons.
So it's only the second film I've seen him in, but honestly, after Paiyaa, in which he kind of exudes irresistable cheeky charm (and if there's one thing I can't resist, it's a hero with swagger... ISN'T IT, SHOTGUN?), I'm kind of impressed with my guy. He starts out with the same cocky bluster
but gets to show a little bit more range: it's not long before Muthu's charming veneer is cracked when he is thrown into the middle of a bloody conflict he isn't prepared for: as a coolie, not a soldier, he reacts like anyone would: he's terrified, he's shocked and traumatised by the horrific, cut-throat violence he witnesses, and at several points in the film he breaks down completely.
I don't want to say too much about it, but there's a sort of psychological element to the film I found really fascinating – at several points the perspective switches from a third person, omniscient view to specifically seeming to reflect the point of view of individuals – significantly Muthu as his grasp on reality wavers.
2. YOU KNOW I AM A SUCKER FOR INTERTEXTUALITY
I know next to nothing about South Indian cinema but the choice to make Karthi's character a die-hard MGR fan
doesn't just seem like a random quirk, or a mere reference to MGR's film of the same name. From what I can tell (thank you Wikipedia!) MGR was highly revered as both an actor and a political leader = qualities that Karthi's character in AO ends up embodying. Early on Muthu sings an old MGR song (maybe from the MGR Aayirathil Oruvan, I don't know?) that seems to foreshadow his destiny with the Cholas:
3. THE HORRIFYING DARKNESS
It seems wrong to say I ''enjoyed'' the film for how it plunged into actually deeply upsetting territory, but I hope you know what I mean. There was an unexpected substance to this film, beyond the skeletons and cannibals and zombies and black magic...but this is where I have to point out that every review you will read of this film will contain something along the lines of “this film is not for the faint-hearted”.
And here's another one for good measure:
THIS FILM IS NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED. Really.
When the reviews say that, they're not talking about the fantastical horror movie stuff – a possessed Karthi's eyes rolling back in his head as he claws bloody lines into his own face;
the legions of roiling snakes attacking a village,
not even the maniacal, brutal, graphic massacres depicted between primitive, possibly bewitched villagers and the modern-day Indians searching for the Cholas.
What is deeply upsetting to watch – and here is the biggest SPOILER ALERT – are the atrocities committed by the Indian Army, headed by Anitha, once the Cholas are discovered and taken prisoner.
Apparently the director of the film has stated that there is no correlation between the horrific scenes of molestation and rape, torture and neglect and murder of the prisoners shown in the film and any historical, real life incident, but it is hard to watch and not be horrified and deeply distressed. You can watch it yourself and draw your own real world parallels – I know what I think it might be about; I also could be way off the mark.
It's decidedly NOT a cracktastic zombie film - while it's far from perfect, it's certainly entertaining and disturbing in equal measure.