NGK Movie Review: Few memorable moments in an underwhelming Selvaraghavan film
NGK is among Selvaraghavan’s lesser films, but there’s still quite a bit to talk about
The state of today’s politics is best illustrated by a scene in NGK when the eponymous protagonist, Nanda Gopalan Kumaran (Suriya turning up, as always), returns to his family after consenting to join a political party. You’d think he just told them he’s been diagnosed with terminal illness. The wife, Geetha (Sai Pallavi), is in a state of stunned silence. The annoying loud mother (Uma Padmanabhan) is convinced her son has signed his death warrant. The father, Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi)… well, he’s a mute observer, as he is in the rest of the film. Horror fills this middle-class residence before Geetha finally assures him — even if it rings artificial, “Kumara, poda kanna. Nee erangina, saakadai kooda suthamaagidum.” You can’t blame her for not knowing then that a more appropriate line would have been, “Indha saakadai unna kooda azhukaakidum.” A constant problem with NGK is how you are never sure exactly how grey Kumaran has become. He starts off white all right, and then is shown sliding into grey. But you’re never sure if he’s actually grey, or if he’s pretending to be grey. This should have been better explored, given it’s at the heart of this film.
Cast: Suriya, Sai Pallavi, Rakul Preet, Bala Singh, Ilavarasu
I’m already seeing comparisons with Pudupettai, and I can see the temptation. Both NGK and Kokki Kumar start as lowly workers before climbing their way up. They couldn’t be more in contrast though. Kokki Kumar only ever cared about his own basal impulses, but NGK has the whole suffering of the world weighing on him. Nobody understands why he cares so much about society. As his mother helpfully indicates right at the beginning, “Ovvoruthanukku ovvoru paithiyam. Ivanukku naatu mela paithiyam.” The film charts, unsatisfactorily, his self-sacrifice for the greater good. It’s psychological at first, and then almost physical, eventually.
NGK gives up a cushy corporate career to return to his native to practise organic farming and make a difference. He’s basically Shankar’s Sivaji without the savings. If Sivaji sang, “Kaaveri aarum kai kuththal arisiyum maranthu poguma?” NGK makes similar feelings clear in a few dialogues at the beginning, when his mother expresses annoyance (she always wears a smirk) that he’s returned for this. In Sivaji, one villain embodied the corrupt system; here though, it’s many, many people, mostly of the evil-self-serving-politician variety. The usual.
The name, Nanda Gopalan Kumaran, is sort of a give-away. It’s a reference to Lord Krishna, the master manipulator who used a war between two rival groups — the Pandavas and Kauravas — to bring about greater good. NGK does pretty much the same. The war is the approaching elections, and the warring groups, the two main political parties. The portions I enjoyed in this film are all almost entirely before the interval. NGK’s ascent — or should we say, descent, given this is a Selvaraghavan film — is quite entertaining to behold. He learns of the power of politicians. He learns of the MLA who abuses with impunity. As he does, a welder gets to work in the background and sparks fly, literally. He has a friend express how great it would be if he joined politics. An unmistakeable photo of MGR stares from the background. He gets shaken when he encounters resistance, and the visuals get shaky too. When he’s first getting advice from Giri (Bala Singh, who I’ll never forget from Pudhupettai), the shot shows him standing on a lower level. Later, after he has supposedly mastered it all, he stands on a stage bellowing into a mic, as Giri, far below, shuffles away, muttering apologies. It’s a film shot really well. A moon-lit terrace is quite a sight. All those shots of frenzied activity, of riots, are really well-handled.
This is a filmmaker whose sense of humour is quite underrated. There are quite a few trademark Selvaraghavan jokes in this film too. When NGK’s mother sees him and Geetha getting cozy, she asks them to get a room. For the longest time, everyone, as an inside joke, refers to NGK as ‘thanga vaal’. A clean toilet gets shown exaggeratedly to be glittering with stars and all. The best of all is when MLA Pandiyan (Ilavarasu) conveys how indispensable NGK is, by telling another politician, “Take my wife if you want. Leave him alone.” We hardly get this sort of unadulterated situational humour from our cinema.
However, you do get the feeling he’s held back on the profanity (for the U-certificate?). A Selvaraghavan film about politics and crime being made for a U-certificate is quite a depressing thought. In any case, I think all of us would be wiser for understanding what constitutes qualification for a U. The film has hookers flitting in and out, weapon-wielding men slashed and murdered by the dozens, a woman standing around with a knife stuck in her arm, a bleeding man delivering a speech, a reference to sexual abuse of a child, a couple burned alive… I don’t understand our censor certification anymore, but if Selvaraghavan did go easy on the material to procure a U, it is a pity.
This director has also generally shown a bit of discomfort with usage of English in his films. In his earlier films, there was contempt for those who used the language, but these days, there’s just awkwardness. At an important point, the Chief Minister in this film says, “Shut the f*** up and spit it out.” Only, it doesn’t come out of his mouth, as smoothly, as menacingly, as it should. Two lecherous old men are referred to as ‘bang bang buddies’, and again, it’s just awkward. The dialogues, in general, are hit and miss. NGK’s Baasha reference, as he rehearses for a speech, falls spectacularly flat. That whole Geetha monologue (Sai Pallavi channelling her inner Kadhal Konden Dhanush) feels fabricated too, despite the actor’s best efforts. The love triangle between NGK, Geetha, and Vaanathi (Rakul Preet), itself, feels like a needless distraction. When Geetha and Vanathi have a conversation in a hospital, it’s as awkward to behold as that infamous ‘chicken’ duel between Reema Sen and Andrea Jeremiah in Aayirathil Oruvan. The duet between NGK and Vaanathi is shockingly placed, even if the director’s idea must have been to portray unrealised romance. I didn’t particularly mind Rakul Preet as Vaanathi, who is shown to be head of a firm called Solutions that masterminds political campaigns. In this day and age, it’s particularly relevant. To milk this for a romance angle though…
I remember people having issues about Dhanush slashing through dozens in Pudupettai, even though there’s footage in the film dedicated to his weapons training. In comparison, NGK is far softer, an educated man after all, and apparently without any training. And yet, this doesn’t stop him from coming trumps in more than one fight where the odds are stacked against him. In a film about real issues, this commercialisation doesn’t quite fit. If NGK doesn’t work, it’s definitely not on account of Suriya’s performance, who puts in a real shift. Comedy, rage, confusion, resolve… he sells it all.
The film is 148 minutes long, and yet, you get the feeling there’s too much packed into it. News reports are constantly flirting with the idea that the director has been thinking of a franchise with Aayirathil Oruvan. I couldn’t help but feel this story may not have been a half-bad idea to split into parts. The monumental struggle for a self-sufficient married man to step into politics. The rise of a party worker among many, many thousands into a recognisable face in the party. The final ascension into top leadership. These are huge developments, and need time. In this film, it all seems just convenient. Perhaps it’s time our writers also began to settle for achievable growth in films like this, instead of conveniently making central characters scale right to the very top, as wish fulfilment fantasies.
While in pursuit of his ambition, NGK says he’s lost everything, but you never truly get a sense of this loss. You never truly understand how he is processing the damage done to his marriage. You never truly get a chance to understand how he has made his own peace with his self-respect having been seriously maimed.
The film also aims for a call to violence through NGK. Somewhere, along the line, he seems to have slipped into believing it would be a great idea to take up arms. He engages in a disturbing takedown of Gandhian protest. He belittles social media and doesn’t seem to think any good can come out of it. You could argue the film doesn’t hold this view; that only its central character does, but given there’s little foray into his negativity, it’s hard to buy that.
There are some great ideas though. In a better film, a crucial stunt sequence occurring in a men’s toilet would have meant so much more, given all the symbolism. This is a man who has taken on the onerous task of cleaning up a system that’s constantly compared to a toilet. It is no coincidence that his first duty as a party worker is to clean up a dirty toilet. It’s where his self-respect gets its first big dent. So it’s fitting that an important fight sequence should be staged there, but you never feel this satisfaction. Hurried transformations, a dispensable romantic triangle, convenient growth, insufficient foray into his psyche… I suppose our wait for the next great Selvaraghavan film will have to continue.