Usually a quartet, occasionally a sextet and now a nonet: the Netflix anthology film is getting more ambitious. The Tamil-language Navarasa follows such recent releases on the streaming platform as Feels Like Ishq, Ajeeb Daastaans, Ray and Paava Kadhaigal.
Comprising nine short films dedicated to each of the rasas, the aesthetic essence of artistic works that inspires an indescribable emotion in the viewer, the Mani Ratnam-Jayendra Panchapakesan production is meant as a fundraiser to assist Tamil industry professionals wounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The episodes were filmed during and in between various lockdowns, which might explain the limited scope and house-bound nature of some of them. Some chapters take advantage of the short film format to provide vignettes of life experiences. Others present complete arcs. The effort to both crunch and expand the imagination between 30 and 40-odd minutes yields at least one solid winner but also several underwhelming titles.
Navarasa opens with excellent performances in an otherwise ordinary story. Revathi, Vijay Sethupathi and Prakash Raj carry Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri: Karuna. (Each of the chapters mentions the rasa being examined).
Split screens reveal the connection between Dheena (Sethupathi) and Savithri (Revathi) before opening out to explore the point of intersection of their stories. Based on a story by Mani Ratnam and a screenplay by Nambiar and Arpita Chatterjee, the short film can barely accommodate its ponderous themes of guilt and redemption.
A fleeting cameo by Marathi actor Sai Tamhankar (her voice is dubbed) suggests that it’s not only Tamil talent that has benefitted from the anthology project.
Ratnam has also written Thunintha Pin: Veera, in which a young commando’s courage and beliefs are challenged by a Maoist revolutionary. Sarjun KM’s film, starring Atharva, Kishore and Anjali, competes with Rathindran R Prasad’s Inmai: Bhaya, featuring Siddharth and Parvathy Thiruvorthu as characters linked by crime and greed, for the “Most Forgettable Episode” in the series.
This category is actually a bit crowded. It includes Karthik Subbaraj’s Peace: Shanthih, in which Bobby Simha’s Tamil Tiger faces off against a Sri Lankan Army unit after he is moved by a boy’s plight. Simha’s ease of doing business with Subbaraj in the past is the highlight of this tossed-off exploration of civil war and dreams of peace and nationhood.
Gautham Vasudev Menon, who also stars in Peace: Shanthih, directs Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru: Shringara. Suriya, looking like he walked off the sets of Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram, plays a Grammy-decorated singer and composer who revisits a fateful encounter with a singer (Prayaga Rose Martin).
Groaning with loaded looks and overloaded lines, Menon’s typically cornball romance coasts along on the strength of its charismatic leading man.
Arvind Swami features in two films. He stars in Karthick Naren’s Project Agni: Adbhuta alongside Prasanna. He also directs (and stays behind the camera for) Roudhram: Raudra.
Project Agni: Adbhuta, about aliens and alternate reality, struggles to live up to its promise of strangeness. Swami’s Roudhram: Raudra, which he has also written, fares a bit better despite its cliched plot.
Starring Riythvika, Sreeram, Abhinayasree, Ramesh Thilak and Geetha Kailasam, the film looks at the rage that is a result of poverty and exploitation. The expressionist colour palette and AR Rahman’s tense background score boosts this kitchen sink drama.
The anthology is crawling with visions of painful pasts and impossible futures. Summer of 92: Hasya revolves around a successful actor’s visit to his school, where he reveals why he was stuck for years in the ninth grade.
Based on an anecdote that occurred with Malayalam actor Innocent, Summer of 92: Hasya operates in Priyadarshan’s comfort zone: the comedy of manners. The top-drawer cast includes Yogi Babu, Nedumudi Venu, Ramya Nambeesan and YG Mahendran and a frisky dog named King in the film and Naas otherwise. Priyadarshan relies on his actors to steer his choppy narrative.
The most memorable and acomplished film in the anthology finds the quality of disgust in an unlikely situation. Vasanth S Sai’s Payasam: Bheebatsa is based on eminent Tamil writer T Janakiraman’s Payasam. The story is set in 1965 in a Brahmin household in Kumbakonam. Resentful of his nephew’s influence and lucre, community elder Samanadhu (Delhi Ganesh) has a staggeringly petty reaction to his niece’s nuptials.
Ignoring the remonstrations of his wife (Rohini) and his widowed daughter (Aditi Balan), Samanadhu comes to resemble the crotchety relative who can always be spotted at such events. Beautifully filmed and performed (especially by Delhi Ganesh), the sweet-and-sour Payasam: Bheebatsa gets its ingredients just right.
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