Maaveeran Movie Review: Unique premise and useful politics make this a winning entertainer
It's a time in our cinema when talented filmmakers like Madonne Ashwin are showing that they are unafraid of punching up
Among the very many thoughts I had while watching the layered Maaveeran concerned the relationship between creators and the characters they create. What must it feel like to be puppets of a creator, robbed of free will and forced by invisible hands? Is the general population, in a sense, robbed of such free will by local gods—politicians—who make everyone do their bidding? In Maaveeran, the protagonist, Sathya (Sivakarthikeyan), is guided by an ‘inner voice’ (inspired by Stranger Than Fiction?) into performing great deeds he would much rather not. At one point, he asks aloud in frustration—at writer-director Madonne Ashwin?—why this ‘inner voice’ won’t have him singing songs and enjoying life. These are such fascinating moments in this smart film that shows that ‘commercial entertainment’ doesn’t need to come at the cost of an inventive premise or its sincere exploration.
Director: Madonne Ashwin
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Mysskin, Aditi Shankar, Sunil, Vijay Sethupathi
Unfortunately for the film’s protagonist, Sathya, Maaveeran isn’t about its central character finding love, dancing about, and capping everything off with a marriage. The film, in fact, begins with a cliched story (presented in animated black-and-white visuals) of a brave man rescuing a princess—but as the heroine Nila (Aditi Shankar) tells Sathya a while into the film, no one wants to read such a generic story… an advice that results in Sathya using his comic strip to channel real issues he observes from the vantage point of his Makkal Maaligai housing board unit.
The film asks the fascinating question of whether he’s a coward for channelling his social consciousness only into his art form. Maaveeran, likeably, doesn’t get sanctimonious in these portions and retains a wonderful sense of humour (an enjoyable aspect in the director’s first film, Mandela, as well). The hero of that film, Yogi Babu, is a riot here too—and here too, he is presented with much dignity. Even in his absence, the film has many laugh-out-loud moments, like when the ‘predictive voice-over’ guides Sathya in a fight and suddenly gets descriptive about his valour being admired by a woman from the audience. An exasperated Sathya exclaims, “Romba mukkiyam!” and it’s impossible not to laugh at what feels like meta-commentary of many films that often get side-tracked by the need to pander to forced elements like a love angle.
But this film doesn’t make that mistake or get too carried away by the Sathya-Nila relationship. Nila remains in the periphery, while a more fundamental woman character is Sathya’s mum (an excellent Saritha). Not reducing her to a wailing mother without an opinion is one of many admirable writing choices in this film. Where another mother might prioritise the safety of her son over all else (how many times have we heard them scream, "Unakku edhukku da idhelaam?", Sathya’s mother is furious that he won’t risk his safety in the pursuit of justice. It also gives you a hint of what her relationship with her late husband (Sathya’s father) must have been founded on. Occasionally, she takes it to extremes (like a casual brutal comment about Sathya) but given that this woman has a proper character arc which sees her make a transformation in the opposite direction to Sathya, I didn’t mind these small exaggerations at all.
Like Madonne Ashwin’s first film, Mandela, this one too speaks of corrupt politicians and their all-consuming intent to preserve and wield power. The chief villains are a Housing and Urban Development Minister, MN Jeyakodi (Mysskin, who seems to bring alive Sathya’s caricatures) and his assistant (Sunil, with such screen presence). The former is likened to the god of death, Yama, with some framing (horns from a portrait seeming like they are a part of Jeyakodi’s head) too adding to this idea. The film speaks of the importance of standing up to injustice, no matter the odds, no matter the consequences. “Yamane thavaru seidhaalum thatti ketpen”. It’s a film that makes such an idealistic appeal to our conscience. The evil minister might be a horrible adversary for a slum-dwelling, poor cartoonist to take on, but as the heroine says, “Amaichar naalum manushan dhaane?”
The cowardice-to-courage transition is a staple of hero-emergence films that many stars have built their careers on. Sivakarthikeyan is terrific here—the humour, yes, but also the unique fight sequences that must not have been easy to perform at all. In presenting this coward-to-fighter transformation, I liked that the film isn’t about fighting prowess or outwardly strength. It’s about the inner switch of resistance getting turned on, a switch that will likely cost you everything but give you the sort of joy that few people will encounter in a lifetime. Nila speaks of this when she underplays the fear of death by saying it comes for everyone anyway. Maaveeran excels in these spaces without seeming indulgent or losing out on easy entertainment. This must have been a delicate balance to maintain.
There’s just so much to chew on and discuss, which is usually a sign of a good film. In Maaveeran, you might not be wrong in interpreting everything after the hospital ‘death’ sequence as a fantasy. At the centre is the beautiful idea of a man who’s even afraid to commit suicide turning into a man who becomes capable of self-sacrifice for the benefit of strangers. As for the ‘mind-voice’ itself, you can process it as a ‘super-power’—or as I did, a dramatisation of our conscience, the inner voice so stifled by all the noise. Perhaps that’s why there’s something about deafness at the end.
Sure, the villains needed to be fleshed out a bit more, and I’d have liked to learn more about that deliciously strange friendship between the characters played by Mysskin and Sunil. Sunil’s character, especially, seems to possess a lot of unrealised promise. As for Mysskin, my most favourite moment from the film is when Mysskin’s Jeyakodi, towards the end, draws a parallel between Sathya’s condition and his own life. But yes, the film does feel a bit stretched and it does feel like some ideas play out better in the head than when they actually happen—like that underwater-anchor scene or that extended building-collapse-rescue scene. The music (by Bharath Sankar) helps though, making the quirky subject matter quite accessible, without ever selling out too easily.
It's a time in our cinema when talented filmmakers like Madonne Ashwin are showing that they are unafraid of punching up. This film asks questions of slum resettlement policies and how they are executed, while not losing sight of being an accessible entertainer. It’s a hard task really, and the film slips in phases, but there’s so much to like—including how the voice-overs are never allowed to get tedious or monotonous—that I have no hesitation forgiving it for the lapses.
Walking out of the film, I heard a few refer to the film as a superhero subject. Even if I didn’t necessarily process it so, it’s easy to see the temptation. In an era of great intellectual confusion—when all sides seem at once right and wrong—being able to listen to your conscience, your inner voice, is, I suppose, a superpower. For this reason, superhero fatigue or not, Maaveeran is a ‘superhero’ I didn’t mind at all.