Tamil Anthology ‘Navarasa’: Some Rise Like Well-Leavened Bhatura While Others Fall Flat Because the Dough is Overworked
- The Netflix web series depicts 9 stories about volatile emotions, unconscionable revenge, unexplained crime, black magic, hidden agenda, pretenses, fake bravado, sensuality, flights of fancy and obsessions.
“Navarasa,” the most anticipated Tamil anthology, because of big-name directors and a cast ensemble began streaming on Netflix India in August. This is my second Tamil anthology after “Puthum Pudhu Kaalai” in 2020. The series is created and co-produced by Mani Ratnam, Jayendra Panchapakesan (“Madras Talkies” and boasts music by A.R. Rahman, Santosh Narayanan and Karthik. The web series was produced pro bono, to support daily-wage workers and members of the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI), affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This anthology with a black and white montage of actors and the blood-curdling music pulls the viewer into the virtual melodrama like a Kathakali dance drama. Nine directors: Arvind Swami, Bejoy Nambiar, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Karthick Naren, Karthik Subbaraj, Priyadarshan, Rathindran Prasad, Sarjun, and Vasanth Sai have addressed nine human expressions or rasas: anger, compassion, courage, disgust, fear, laughter, love, peace, and wonder.
Story 1 – Karuna
Bejoy Nambiar did everything right by picking the talented actress Revathy with Vijay Sethupathi. I recognized Revathy’s emotive face immediately from the popular movie “Two States.” In “Edhiri,” Revathy plays Savitri, a very patient tutor who loves teaching her domestic servant’s children. But she has had an estranged relationship with her husband for many years. Her face portrays a range of emotions from shock, to dismay to confusion on witnessing her husband’s murder at the hands of Dheena (her maid’s husband). What will she do when she again faces the killer? Does she have a right to forgive him, i.e, offer karuna? We do not know the reason for this crime but it is implied… Is Dheena’s crime a mercy killing of sorts? Very confusing. Perhaps lost in translation? If Revathy was not in this short, I would have skipped over it.
Story 2 – Hasya
Priyadarshan cast Yogi Babu as a successful comedy actor, who returns to his school’s centenary function in his village. The lead actor sporting a flamboyant Afro dominates the stage with his speech. The flashback retelling of his days as a failing backbencher, always in trouble with the teachers is supposed to generate humor but it failed to tickle my funny bone. Boys kicking a classmate’s shoe across the playground and other shenanigans appear trite. Why did he spoil the arranged marriage of a teacher — Lakshmi (Remya Nambeesan)? The episode about the principal’s dog coming back to the house and soiling the gathered guests in fecal matter is not hilarious? It is in poor taste. But the unmarried teacher still blesses the comedian for his achievements. Odd.
Story 3 — Adbutha
Karthick Naren’s Project Agni reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s surreal storylines. This episode is very sci-fi with clock-face contraptions/drifter, psychedelic green potions and uncomfortable headgear. You assume that the two scientists Aravind Swamy (who rejects a job at ISRO to be free to invent) and Prasanna are traveling in time but their research explores the creation of parallel universes controlled by fictitious Annukai by deconstructing time. They try to portray how the future affects the present and how the past changes the present reality. This seems to be the current rage as seen in the Netflix series “Dark” and Amitav Ghosh’s latest book “Gun Island.” Ambitious venture but not for wider audiences. It seems a bit like the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” difficult to access by common minds.
Story 4 – Bheebhatsa
A family saga set in the 18th century in the village of Kumbakonam is my favorite. This short portrays the festering resentment and jealousy of an elderly Brahmin. I expected the story to be sweet like the lentil and rice payasam cooked on slow fire at a Brahmin wedding, but it is not. Delhi Ganesh is incredible in his refined performance as the aging uncle who resents the success of his nephew Subbu and does everything a person can do to avoid attending the ceremony. Even prays longer at the shrine of Lord Ganesh, holding his ears and squatting. His widowed daughter (Aditi Balan) on the other hand helps the bride and looks upon the festivities with kindness, (despite the discomfort of other family members due to her widowed status). The narrative has a clean “Malgudi Days” like the vibe and pulls the viewer into the scenes. The old disgruntled uncle reminds me of so many relatives back home and in our midst, who have too much time on their hands. Instead of focusing their energies on self-improvement, they belittle the success of others, because they feel that everyone in the family owes them in some shape or form. Consumed by envy. Childish tantrums can extend into a ripe old age. Delhi Ganesh simply cannot help himself in ruining the wedding by his final petty action. As he justifies his jealousy by inventing an imaginary dead rodent, his daughter looks at him with disgust or bheebhatsa. Well done. This story is a keeper.
Story 5 – Shanti
Karthik Subbaraj‘s ‘Peace’ is based on the Sri Lankan Civil War (1991-2009). Four LTTE militants are guarding the Elephant Pass when they see a young boy fleeing from the army. One of the militant’s Nilavan (Bobby Simha) who is the protagonist of the story puts his own life at risk to save Vellaiyan, the boy’s younger brother who is left stranded at his home. It is a case of mistaken identity, Vellaiyan turns out to be a puppy instead of a human. Nilavan saves the puppy even though he is frustrated by being duped. But he makes peace with himself because he thinks that the puppy may be an incarnation of his older brother who was killed in battle in 1988. His name was also Vellayan. Regardless he thinks of it as a sign. But falls into the trap by yelling “thanks” to the military. Ultimately, Nilavan attains his final tranquility in death. Not my favorite interpretation.
Story 6 – Roudhram
This is a directorial debut of actor Arvind Swami shows promise. It’s a complex tale of internal conflict playing out in external outrage. In the opening frame, loan shark Ganesan (Azhagam Perumal) extracts money from a poor shopkeeper. As Ganesan walks away, a teenager, Arul ( Sree Raam) hits his head with a hammer. Very unexpected and dramatic. I almost dropped my laptop. A female police officer investigates the reason for this boy’s sudden roudhram and that leads us to their backstory. Arul and Anbukusari live with their mother, a fourth-class worker/janitor. The children are frustrated by their dismal life and decide to run away. But the mother is plunged into melancholy. Arul convinces his mother to take out a loan from Ganesan. Their domestic lives improve due to the extra money. Now the trio has electricity, fish fry, and ice cream. Arul wins a football tournament and goes to Ganesan’s house to return the loan. He finds his mother talking to Ganesan. He assumes the worst and attacks Ganesan. The girl also leaves the house in dismay and strangely enough becomes a police officer. The story brings up an important point about the psychological impact of pent-up anger on young children against adverse circumstances. The well-drafted screenplay deserves applause.
Story 7 – Bhaya
Farooq (Siddharth) pays a visit to Waheeda, a widow( Parvathy Thiruvothu) at her expensive resort-style home in Puducherry. The cinematography is striking. It takes the viewer into lush interiors with exquisite calligraphy. The director has a penchant for the color turquoise because it is echoed in Waheeda’s dupatta to her teacups, carpets, rugs and wall paint. The apparent purpose of Farooq’s visit is to get some paperwork signed by Waheeda but she seems to take an interest in him and invites him inside her home (Who does that? Perhaps she is lonely and smitten by his good looks?) Waheeda’s scarred eyebrow pulls focus, and you make a mental note of a bad omen. A phone call brings us to the backstory. As Farooq draws alphabets on the coffee table with fingers dipped in chai (clever foreshadowing), Waheeda questions him as to the real purpose of his visit. The sordid tale unfolds. Once upon a time, young Waheeda (Ammu Abhiram) was a housemaid for a rich widower Maraikkayar, who was suffering from an incurable brain tumor. Maraikkayar enjoys her company and feels better in her presence. They are married. The maid thinks that her rich sugar daddy will die soon but he undergoes an unexpected remission. Waheeda seeks help from Hussein Hojja, a wielder of black magic to summon a Djinn to kill the old man. Maraikkayar succumbs to hallucinations caused by voodoo or his tumor. Waheeda inherits the property. A faithful servant Jaffar (not related to the Aladdin story) smells a rat. Waheeda gets rid of him by accusing him of theft. Jaffar suffers a cardiac arrest. Farooq is Jaffar’s son and when Waheeda recognizes him and thinks that the djinn’s black magic has boomeranged on him. She is overcome with bhaya or horror and kills herself. Farooq forges her signature on the property papers and avenges his father’s death.
Story 8 – Veera
Veera is a tale about persistent tension between Naxalites and the Indian Army in dense forest regions. It is very reminiscent of Manoj Bajpayee‘s “The Family Man, Season 2.” In this narrative one of the Naxal leaders (Kishore) is injured in crossfire and has a bullet lodged in his gut. He is critical but the young police officer Atharvaa is determined to take him to the headquarters alive. Their journey is fraught with uncertainty. The background teeming with bird calls, smoke signals, roadblocks, car troubles and whistles add tension to the drama. The police officer is hyper-aware of being ambushed in hostile territory but he manages to tie a makeshift tourniquet and drives his captive to a municipal hospital. But the comrade escapes with a box full of medical supplies for the rebels and drives off with his jeep. In the last scene, the police officer is shown chasing his jeep saying: “I have a bullet with your name written on it, comrade!” I think the director wants to convey that some battles are unresolved despite ample veera rasa on both sides. It’s all well and good but it left me with an unsettling feeling about visiting Naxalite-affected regions in India.
Story 9 — Sringara
This is a story about an aspiring singer and songwriter Suriya, who lives with his mother. A long-awaited movie with three songs penned by him is shelved again. He sits depressed, across the table from his mother, who serves him a fresh hot meal and encourages him to sing for her and do solo performances. The next day, the protagonist meets a young female singer (he is 32, she is 22) who comes to the recording studio to record a jingle. She fawns all over him with her eyes, body language and verbose praise. “Your music is international … Your compositions remind me of Beethoven. They transport the listener to amazing imagery.” Both of them intentionally avoid making any physical contact in the small confines of the studio but are soon seen riding on his motorbike without helmets (he claims to be a safe driver). They are in the thrall of music, infatuation and assumed true love. Not. But it is off-putting to hear that he falls for her because she validates his talent exactly like his mother. An Oedipus complex of sorts. Not romantic. Director Gautam Menon makes a subconscious return to his favorite theme of a love story narrated in a flashback song sequence. The songs composed by Karthik jive with original verse and rhythm (every wave, every drop is a new love, waterfall in your eyes, tears fill the skies, fragrance of an old book) but there are too many songs for a short film. Finally, the singer is in London singing a love song in Tamil but his muse is not with him. Perhaps his mother agreed to come and stay with him in London and cook for him. Perhaps that broke up their romance? Who knows? This short gives us an insight into mama’s boys and their confusion about what being in love is all about.
In short, “Navarasa” depicts 9 stories about volatile emotions, unconscionable revenge, unexplained crime, black magic, hidden agenda, pretenses, fake bravado, sensuality, flights of fancy and obsessions. Some rise like well-leavened bhatura, while others fall flat because the dough is overworked. Well done but better luck next time.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM