Many critics are calling the ending of Naachiyaar a ‘happy’ one — a rarity in Bala’s films. I disagree. Thinking about it, it’s is perhaps Bala’s most disturbing conclusion to a film. What separates this ending from the rest of his films is that this ending is offputting NOT by design. But more on that later.
There are two parts to this movie, intertwined. One: We follow a badass cop named Naachiyaar (Jyothika) as she tries to solve a supposed rape case involving a minor, Arasi (Ivana) and a slumdog named Kaathu (GV Prakash). Bala cuts back and forth between the investigation led by Naachiyaar as well as, two: The innocent young romance between Arasi and Kaathu.
Surprisingly, the innocent romance between our two young characters is the best part of the film. Bala’s characters are always fleshed out and interesting. Whether it’s Atharvaa’s character in Paradesi, Arya’s character in Naan Kadavul or Vishal’s in Avan Ivan, each of them come with colourful personalities that are distinct and memorable.
Here, it’s no different. Kaathu may be the older of the two, but he tackles each day with a childlike bounce. Arasi, although younger, is more mature and sharp minded. The romance between Kaathu and Arasi plays out naturally. Unlike in Mass-masalas, the romance here isn’t cheesy.
Bala is masterful at telling stories about poverty-stricken people. He paints a picture of hardship and suffering, with such intricate detail, but (for the most part) presents it in a tone that is matter-of-factly. In a series of flashbacks, Kaathu and Arasi seem to be happy. They tease each other and crack jokes — Bala has a knack for writing crass dialogue that is incredibly funny. I laughed, but witnessing their lives, I also couldn’t help but feel sad. It’s both funny and heartbreaking to see Kaathu slurp on free orange juice at a wedding so quickly and enthusiastically as if it’s piss taken from The Almighty’s bladder.
Bala sets this film up in a way that makes us question IF Kaathu actually raped Arasi. And if he did, why does she break down when he’s arrested? Why does she beg Naachiyaar to let him go? Is this film going to make us question if statutory rape is okay? Will Bala present us with a love story so pure, that we find their lovemaking acceptable, only to be uncomfortable with the fact that we find their lovemaking acceptable?
Except it seems like for the first time in his storied career, Bala loses his footing and stumbles. The second half of the film becomes a whodunit. There is a twist. Some might consider it a spoiler, I see it as a necessary warning. At the midway point, we find out that it wasn’t Kaathu who impregnated Arasi, but someone else. I applaud Bala for venturing out of his comfort zone, but it also becomes very obvious that a whodunit mystery is not where his talents lie. The mystery is bland and Bala doesn’t keep you guessing. The investigation doesn’t contain a lick of logic. Also, what investigation?
If you walked into Naachiyaar hoping to get something like Suriya from Kaakha Kaakha, you will be disappointed. What we get is Suriya from Singham, though, admittedly, a slightly better version. Bala’s understanding of ‘strong female protagonist’ is kinda like James Cameron’s. Both of them are under the impression that for a woman to be a hero, she needs to be a man. And not just any man, but a tough, crass, maybe even cigarette smoking man. Look at how James Cameron presents Ripley in Aliens versus how Ridley Scott presents Ripley in Alien. Look at Cameron’s writing of Sarah Connor in The Terminator, when she’s a waitress on the run versus his writing of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, when she’s a hero.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Cameron’s version of Ripley and Sarah Connor are shit. They’re pretty damn awesome. I’m merely highlighting his train of thought on what a strong female character means. I prefer female characters like Rey from Star Wars or Diana Prince from Wonder Woman or if you’re looking for something more gritty, Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. These are characters that still feel female — and it has nothing to do with looks because Furiosa is bald. They emit warmth and internal strength that only females have. Their maternal instincts are still intact. They’re not women playing men.
It feels like Bala wrote Naachiyaar as if the character is a man and then just cast Jyothika in the role. She’s rowdy, grunts a lot, cusses a lot and beats people up. She’s a whack first talk later kinda gal. Look, I’m not saying women can’t be rough and tough and beat people up. But Naachiyaar is a one-dimensional character that lacks nuance. She shows little empathy and operates without logic. I would have liked to see her use her brains a little more. Seriously, there is a scene in the movie where Naachiyaar and her husband get into an argument. When her husband leaves the living room, Naachiyaar leans back against the sofa and grunts loudly. It is one of the more comical and nonsensical character moments I’ve seen in a while.
But despite the poor writing of the character, Jyothika does her best to make it work. She’s a talented actress, one who has come out of retirement and making bolder creative decisions than she has her entire career. Without Jyothika embodying this character, Naachiyaar could have been a trainwreck. And no, I completely disagree with my colleague that Anushka would have been a better fit for this role. Jyothika is great, the writing of her character is shit.
Bala is one of the best directors working in south India today. For the most part, he’s uninterested in the glitz and glamour of your typical Tamil movie masala, instead choosing to constantly push the envelope and tell earnest, compelling and oftentimes brutal stories. Naachiyaar isn’t a bad movie, but it surely is a departure from this brilliant filmmaker’s usual standards.
Let’s talk about the ending for a bit. Fair warning, SPOILERS ahead. Scroll down for rating.
At the end of the movie, we learn that Arasi didn’t get pregnant when she had sex with Kaathu, but was raped while she was unconscious by one of her employers. Arasi gives birth, Kaathu gets released from jail and they all live happily ever after, right? Well, not quite. Despite her husband’s advice, Naachiyaar decides that the best way to protect Arasi is to let her continue to believe that she got pregnant because she had sex with Kaathu. Kaathu agrees with her decision and calls her a great person and the movie ends.
Bala presents Naachiyaar’s decision in a positive light. But when the end credits rolled, I felt uncomfortable. What rights does Naachiyaar or anyone for that matter, have to keep that information from Arasi? The young girl got raped for Christ’s sake! And you’re gonna let her live her life thinking that she didn’t in the name of “protecting her”? What does that tell us? That it’s okay to rape someone as long as she doesn’t know about it? Also, she may not know it immediately, but the experience will most likely traumatise her in the months and years to come.
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why does a much better job highlighting what happens to you when you get raped while you’re unconscious. The ending of Naachiyaar is just fu*ked up.