Soorarai Pottru Review: Suriya delivers an ace performance in this soaring, sensitive drama
Strong performances, sensitive writing, purposeful characters... Soorarai Pottru is the whole package.
A star like Suriya in a film that charts the struggles of a real businessman behind a low-cost airlines company… I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly blown away by the possibilities. And Sudha Kongara, from the little we know of her from mainly Irudhi Suttru, didn’t exactly strike me as a filmmaker willing to settle for easy mass entertainment from this material either. The question then was, can the dramatisation of the many cumbersome processes involved in the setting up of an airlines company make for riveting cinema? Well, it turns out that it can make for even better cinema than one may imagine. The abundant depth and entertainment on offer in Soorarai Pottru, I view as being a direct consequence of the unrelenting honesty of its writing and performances. It’s evident that the cast is united in its faith on this material; you can see that the writing complements this by being fiercely loyal towards its characters, even at the cost of and especially at the cost of ‘predictable entertainment’.
Soorarai Pottru is the story of a Tamil man, Nedumaaran Rajangam (Suriya), who goes in vain from office to office looking for investors. It’s the story that documents the long waiting involved in government offices if you wanted to do something useful for our society. It’s the story of how Maaran makes unwitting enemies by simply declaring his intention to make life easy for the common man. In a Shankar film, like a Sivaji, the jaded hero, with similar aspirations, would resort to violence or corruption himself, in order to beat the system and offer you fairy tale-ish catharsis. However, Sudha Kongara’s Maaran isn’t a vigilante; he wants to, within the rules of the oppressive system, find a way to make his dream come true. He’s not a cinema hero; he’s a real guy. And yet, this makes him more heroic than a star beating up a dozen rowdies hired by a rival businessman.
Soorarai is admirable for its refusal to bite into such safe ‘mass’ ideas. It’s a film based on the autobiography, Simply Fly (about Captain Gopinath’s dream of launching a low-cost airlines company), and in an early disclaimer, makes it clear that ‘the film has been fictionalised and modified entirely for the cinematic experience’. And yet, none of this ever comes at the cost of respect for Maaran, and more importantly, his utilitarian ambition of making flights affordable for the masses. While this is very much a ‘mass’ film in many ways and is about a hero who strives to overcome obstacles strategically placed in front of him by his rich and powerful rivals, it’s all done with great dignity and love for reality. That’s why, even being a cynic, I found myself buying into the heady optimism of this film’s message that should you stick with your dream and follow through, without giving up at the first scream or the first tears, you can taste success. It’s optimism, yes, but Soorarai Pottru offers it with dollops of practicality. Even the use of songs in this film is rather… practical. Maaran and Bommi threaten to break into songs, but save for flourishes here and there, there’s nothing here that gets in the way of the film or derails its intensity.
Among my many favourite aspects of this film is its sensitivity and empathy. Despite having numerous chances to take the easy way out and get a cheap laugh or two, it doesn’t. For example, there’s a scene in which Alapparai (Karunaas) offers his lifetime savings of Rs. 11,500 to a struggling Maaran and asks, rather pleased with himself, if this will be enough for his needs. Maaran, in response, says, with some hesitation, that the money he actually needs is in the range of Rs. 3 crore. In another film, this could so easily turn out to be a laugh-out-loud moment, but here, Maaran further adds that Karunaas’ generosity is worth more than the 3 crore he needs. It’s the sort of sensitivity we rarely get towards fringe characters. The dialogues, on many other occasions too, are incisive. One of my favourites—and one that pretty much summarises the soul of this film—is a comment Maaran makes: “Naan socialist, nee socialite”. No points for sensing the signature of the dialogue writer, Vijay Kumar (Uriyadi, Uriyadi 2).
While watching this film, a word that kept sounding off in my head was ‘respect’. Be it in the respect accorded by the film to its many characters, not one of whom lacks purpose (including a relatively anonymous well-wisher like Kaali), or the mutual respect that’s at the heart of the romance between Maaran and Bommi, you can spot this quality at several places. The Maaran-Bommi togetherness (I won’t call it romantic angle in this film) is probably my most favourite part of Soorarai Pottru. How wonderful to see a romance sprouting from a cohesion of ambitions and ideology. Aparna Balamurali is wonderful as Bommi, as a real woman unafraid to voice her opinions, desires, and dreams. To put it simply, she’s no ‘saadhaarna ponnu’. Maaran almost makes it seem like a lament in a scene when he says, “Saadhaarna ponnu madhriye pesa maatiya di?” But by then, you know that he means this only as a compliment. A ‘saadharna ponnu’ would have said yes to him immediately after he agrees to marry her. She would have no real ambition, no feisty personality. Maaran couldn’t live with a ‘saadharna ponnu’; as he’s no ‘saadharna paiyan’ either. Alapparai refers to them both as ‘loosu’, as a joke. Maaran doesn’t call her Sundari, after her given name, but Bommi, drawn from the name of her bakery. It’s a recognition of what he loves about her, a passion for entrepreneurship that he knows she loves about him too. Passion and purpose are attractive traits, and few films get this facet of romance right (and apply to both genders) in the way Soorarai Pottru does. In another film, Maaran referring to Bommi occasionally as ‘bun-u’ could feel offensive, but in this film, it’s a term of endearment and respect and it’s beautiful. Also beautiful is how director Sudha refuses to over-dramatise a pregnancy and utilises it to signify strength of a woman and not make her a creature to be rescued by the man, as countless films have done over the decades. No number of I Love Yous can match up to the love shown by Bommi with a single gesture in that lovely scene.
Suriya as Maaran is a charismatic presence and a picture of passion. There’s a parallel to be drawn between Maaran’s passion in this film and Suriya’s own seeming passion for this film that has resulted in a performance that easily outshines everything from his recent past. Nedumaaran does not have the flamboyance of 24’s Athreya or the over-the-top showmanship of NGK’s eponymous protagonist, and yet, you buy that he’s Nedumaaran through and through in every minute of this film. Even the rare smile from him in this film feels restrained and it makes sense because Maaran isn’t the kind to switch off from his unrealised passion for even a moment. This is why many of Maaran’s romantic responses to Bommi also feel stifled almost—and she loves him for it. Even a primal scream from him in this film is starkly different from the hollow yelling we have come to endure in the Singam films. He even gets a few highlight reel scenes, including one in which he’s a fallen heap at his mother’s feet and another where he’s almost begging fellow flight passengers for some money. However, my favourite is a fleeting cutesy moment between Maaran and Bommi, when he tells her he is considering reducing the weight of his proposed aircraft. Bommi wryly comments, “Weight-a irundha pidikaadho?” Maaran answers, “Mmm”, smacking his lips in enjoyment, and gives her a bear hug. It’s impossible not to laugh in enjoyment at the adorable naughtiness of the moment. If I had a passing grouse at all about Suriya’s performance, it would be about the on and off Madurai dialect in his dialogues, which makes its presence felt in easy, comfortable ways like the suffix of ‘-ainga’ or the occasional ‘ambuttu dhaan’.
I liked Soorarai Pottru’s decision to refuse to vilify characters like Maara’s father or his reporting head at the academy, Naidu (Mohan Babu), who could so easily have been portrayed as a caricature. However, it’s a film brimming with empathy for even such characters and knows that even if the hero is inconvenienced, characters going about their job and in possession of a strong personality aren’t necessarily despicable people. The character it’s truly interested in punching is Paresh Goswami (Paresh Rawal), the all-powerful head of a large airlines company, and more relevantly for punching purposes in this film, he is a wealthy man with unusual levels of condescension and disgust for any man lesser than him in wealth and heirarchy. If that’s not inherently villainous, what is? He’s the sort to shake hands with Maaran and immediately use a sanitiser. I guess that this gesture, since the onset of the covid era, must seem less villainous today than when it was originally conceived for this film. Paresh plays his snobbish character by sporting a perpetual sneer and contempt, like he were constantly in the presence of bad odour. It brought to my mind many instances of flight passengers judging others for perceived embarassments like not knowing how to wear a seat belt or getting overly excited or frightened. It’s fascinating that Sudha Kongara has picked up this powerful and relevant trait, this condescension for ‘lack of sophistication’, as a definitive feature for her villain. Even a fringe character makes a snide mention of ‘smelly’ when Maaran is engaged in an argument with the ticket attendant. So, this is clearly a running theme—and an important social aspect to bring to the fore. I love that at the end, there’s a special scene that covers a few characters shaking in discomfort at the prospect of their first flight taking off.
We have seen countless Suriya films in recent years in which he has sent people airborne in the climax. It’s a wonderful relief to note in Soorarai Pottru that though he’s still worrying about sending something airborne, there’s no overt fighting going on here. And yet, it’s still a ‘mass’ film for all the right reasons. The key difference between the hero and the villain in this film isn’t about physical strength; it’s about mentality; it’s about nobility of thought. It’s simply about how Maaran cares for others more than Paresh, more than most do. It’s what one of his friends doesn’t get and instead perceives his airlines dream as a career ambition… but for Maaran, it’s more about others than about himself. And that’s a rare quality worth cherishing. It’s why Chitra (Vinodhini), after helping Maaran out, says, “Indha nooru koodi perla, naanum aattu mandhai la oruththi. Neeyum apdi aaga maatennu nambaren.” It’s a film with character purpose across the board, incisive dialogues, great performances, and much empathy and sensitivity to boot. Soorarai Pottru is the whole package really. It can be said that in charting the life of this man who wanted millions to soar, the film too has managed to.