Naanum Rowdy Dhaan ***
Dir: Vignesh Shivan. With: Vijay Sethupathi, Nayantara, Parthiban, Radhika Sarathkumar. 139 mins. Cert: 12A
The big Tamil hit of the season, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (I’m A Rowdy Too), opens with a lovely, small but crystallising image. A seven-year-old boy, Pondy, sits in an empty cell in the police station at which his mother works as an inspector, assiduously filling in a school worksheet. Under “what do you want to be?”, the boy scrawls the word “police” – but upon hearing a crime story told by the excitable rogue who takes his place, he alters the letters to read “rowdy” (i.e. thug). With appreciable economy, writer-director Vignesh Shivan establishes his own ambition: to make merry mischief on either side of the fine line between law and disorder.
Fastforward twenty years, and Pondy (Vijay Sethupathi) has come to set up shop as a strongman-for-hire, his prices set out in garish ghost-train day-glo on the walls of his underpopulated office: 10,000 rupees for leg-breaking, 15,000 for an arm. When he crosses paths with spirited deaf woman Kadhambari (Nayanthara), we initially fear sappiness, but Shivan is specific in describing the effect she has on our hero: Pondy is obliged to speak slower and softer, to use his hands to communicate rather than throw punches. I had fond flashbacks to 2006’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai, where a mobster found himself mollified by the pestering spirit of Gandhi.
After several weeks of Hindi movies trading in random gags and clashing tones, it’s a relief to encounter a film where every element feels integrated and thought-through: Kadhambari’s deafness connects to that prologue as well as the subsequent murder of her father. Even the musical numbers – all but one penned by Shivan – serve to push the plot on, or strengthen our sense of these characters; as the title song says of Pondy, “He doesn’t like violence/But he’s a rowdy anyway”. It therefore makes sense we should arrive at a point, just before the intermission, where gentle Kadhambari should turn Lady Macbeth and ask Pondy to help her slay her father’s killer.
This development instantly relieves Nayanthara of having to play damp-eyed damsel-in-distress; just as Pondy is evidently less of a tough guy than he’d like to project, so too Kadhambari proves far steelier than first assumed. Any US remake would have to pair, say, Seth Rogen with Angelina Jolie: we’d immediately grasp he’d do anything for her, while fearing his heart might give out in the process. The second half, essentially a men-on-a-mission movie, makes pointed the fact the pair’s target (Parthiban, shrewdly pantomimic) should now be standing for office – again, it’s a fine line – and funny the idea he should have upset so many folk that he’s tailed by rival assassins.
There are some rough edges and missed opportunities. Overbearing incidental music keeps threatening to drown out the dialogue, and Shivan doesn’t quite make enough of his fine supporting cast. (One key player vanishes for so long the end credits can joke about their disappearance.) Still, the narrative assurance is matched by a breeziness of tone. You feel everybody relaxing around the coastal Pondicherry locations; wherever queasy violence lurks, Shivan knows a good gag will leaven the mood. Unlike its protagonist, his film isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is: far from a novelty, but well-written, carefully composed and very likably played – the kind of crowdpleaser that deserves its success.
Naanum Rowdydhaan is now playing in selected cinemas.