Karthick Naren is a talented filmmaker. His first feature film, Dhruvangal Pathinaaru, was so rich in minute detail, the world so fully realised, you couldn’t help but be intoxicated by the goings-on even when some of the puzzle pieces didn’t quite fit perfectly when you sit down and think about it after. I will never forget the scene where the less-than ancillary police officer character realises he’s forgotten his cap in the apartment he was conducting an investigation in. It’s an unimportant moment, one that most writer-directors would not even include in their screenplays, forget leaving it on the chopping room floor. But Karthick Naren understands that a scene like that adds texture and makes the world feel lived-in and real.
Karthick Naren was only 22 years old when Dhruvangal Pathinaaru was released which made sceptics wonder if it was just a ‘lightning in a bottle’ situation. Maybe Lady Luck had planted a wicked kiss on the nether regions of the rookie filmmaker. But Dhruvangal Pathinaaru is not the kind of film that happens because of sheer dumb luck. It’s the kind that announces a young man as a filmmaker we should keep our eyes on with great intrigue. The past couple of paragraphs are going to sound pretty damn ironic in just a second because I just watched his second film, Mafia (well, third since his second Naragasooran is struggling to find a release) and I’m genuinely shocked that it’s made by the same filmmaker.
Mafia doesn’t have an auteur behind it. It’s generic, not just in terms of story, not just in terms of its screenplay but the direction as well. The shades of the Dhruvangal Pathinaaru director isn’t faded, it’s completely vanished into thin air. Mafia is nothing but a compilation of music videos and slow-motion shots weaved together with a plot that’s thinner than a pornstar’s g-string.
It follows Arun Vijay’s Aryan, a Narcotics officer who’s on the hunt for a high-level drug lord, DK (Prasanna). Karthick Naren has said that he’s inspired by the Netflix series, Narcos. Aryan’s ringtone is the opening title soundtrack of that fantastic series (a slightly on the nose easter egg if you ask me). But it’s difficult to see what exactly about Narcos he was inspired by. Where Narcos sucked us into the dirty, dusty and sometimes luxurious world of the Mexican cartel, Mafia has… neon lights? It’s difficult to say as there’s little to no worldbuilding in the film.
But while that’s a bummer, it isn’t the main problem. After all, Karthick Naren has said that he’s just used the underbellies of the drug world as a backdrop to tell his mainstream ‘cat & mouse’ story (a story with some sort of pursuit, usually involving a cop and a criminal).
All great ‘cat and mouse’ movies have an interesting cat and an intriguing mouse. They have suspenseful scenes where the cat (and the audience) discovers new information that works our brain. It has sequences of pure thrills where the cat almost catches the mouse, but the mouse is always two steps ahead (think of the Poker scenes in Casino Royale). It definitely needs to have scenes where the cat and the mouse face each other and exchange interesting lines of dialogue that sends the audience into a high (think of the exchanges between Bond and Silva in Skyfall). None of which are present in Mafia.
What we do get is a bunch of slow-motion shots with loud music accompanying them. First Aryan gets a whole hero-introduction package — a car drives into the frame in slow-mo, closeup shots of Aryan’s knuckles on the steering, his shoes, his back before finally revealing his face. But Arun Vijay isn’t a STAR in the same vein as Rajinikanth, Vijay, Ajith or even Dhanush. He doesn’t have fervent fans jumping over gates and breaking down barriers at ticket counters to buy a First Day First Show ticket. So, the slow-motion hero-introduction scene with fragmented body parts means nothing.
Instead, the film needed sequences that inform us about and make us get firmly behind the character. But character writing is non-existent here. We learn everything there is to know about Aryan through a voice-over and a generic montage (he shoots people, kicks people, does some low-level drug busts, kicks more people). After which, we get no character development.
During the montage, we also get introduced to Aryan’s teammates (Priya Bhavani Shankar & Bala Hassan). You’re told that they’re good friends and a fully functioning unit. But not once does Aryan actually have a conversation with them, only to. Most of the time, they don’t even respond. (I guess we have to be happy that the Priya Bhavani’s character isn’t written as some loosu ponnu who just fawns over the leading man and shows up on screen once in a while to sway her hips during dance numbers. But how can we really be happy when she’s less interesting than Kajal Agarwal’s character in Mersal?)
This type of lazy writing is extended to the villain character too. Prasanna’s doesn’t get much to do beyond stand around with pursed lips and look cool. Which is what 99.9% of this film is: Standing around looking cool. There’s barely any riveting exchanges between hero and villain. There’s no psychological tension or drama. The only nice bit of dialogue between hero and villain (the lines about jungles and lions we hear in the trailer) are part of two different background song sequences that play out like music videos.
I kept waiting for something compelling to happen. Sequences of pure suspense. Maybe a few smart twists and turns. And this is the most shocking part about Mafia given the director’s first film. Nothing compelling happens. There’s no sense of discovery. Nothing to make you sit upright in anticipation. Well, not until the rousing big reveal at the end. But again, the tease of a bigger universe means zilch when the journey leading up to that point has been uneventful.
Mafia is just a straightforward action movie (that thinks it’s something more). There’s nothing wrong in that. After all, over the past few years, we’ve seen what’s essentially a franchise centred around gun-porn and ass-kicking orgies that play out like beautiful pieces of adrenaline-pumping art. I’m of course talking about the John Wick franchise. Indonesia’s The Raid comes to mind too. But Mafia isn’t even inspiring in the action department. Karthick Naren seems to be under the impression that the number of slow-motion shots is directly perpendicular to the quality of an action set-piece. So, instead of getting wonderfully choreographed, hard-hitting, pulsating blocks of glorious violence with only specific moments in slow-mo, we get long-stretches where entire fights take place in slow motion. At one point, I got out of my seat, ran up the stairs and asked the projectionist if he reduced the playback speed by accident. He just stared at me like I’m a moron.
Word of the day: Slow-motion.