Beyond the glamour, story, style, music and visuals, a movie works mostly because of how it is structured. Joss Whedon once told Drew Goddard that arriving at the perfect structure for a movie was 80% of a screenwriter's job done. And Karthavyam (Aramm) is one of the most fascinatingly structured movies in recent memory.
The movie opens with the deposition of District Collector Varshini (Nayantara). She is being questioned about certain events which form the narrative of this movie, by a superior. She monologues like any central character with political leanings would, harping on poverty, the system and politicians.
But as she starts giving her account of the events, the movie starts giving you a look inside the world of a small rural family. A man, a woman and their three children live in a village with no potable water. As writer/director Gopi Nainar elegantly makes inroads into developing these characters, the youngest child of the family falls into a poorly covered borewell.
Now time is of the essence as Varshini, the politicians who run the village, the police, the fire brigade, the army, the medical staff and every citizen that calls this unassuming village home all work together to rescue the child.
If this story were to be told chronologically, its selling point (Nayantara) would not make her way into the story till the 40-minute mark. The movie needs its hook and it comes in the form of the two-dimensional Varshini and her crusade. Varshini's plethora of sound bites and lack of true depth are offset by the depiction of the rural community. As she narrates their story, the texture given to the nuclear family is exquisite. The storytelling here is reminiscent of a Kaaka Muttai or a Pasanga. But looming over these two plot threads is the fact that both of them will merge and one of them is going to overpower the other.
No prizes for guessing which side wins. If you have Lady Superstar Nayantara and a half decent story on your side, the war is all but won. But to us, the niggling battles the movie loses along the way are not ignorable. The movie's protagonist is your typical strong female character with neither the murky emotional baggage of an Erin Brockovich
nor the unadulterated goodness of a Wonder Woman
. This works to both the movie's merit and detriment.
Varshini is never held down by needless exposition or personal drama or a doting family a la Singam
. She is defined by her position and the work she does there. While this is admirable, her character becomes one in a sea of righteous cinematic figures fighting the system as the movie rolls on. She is always in the right and never at odds with her moral compass even if her sartorial choices (sarees with shades of grey) suggest otherwise.
Her presence is so overpowering and all-encompassing that it overshadows other plot threads and emotional arcs. The family whose plight she is trying to tend to are quickly turned into mini-caricatures as the movie's second half rolls in. The thoughtful and resourceful parents and adorable children the audience are presented with are gradually chipped away until they are nothing more than a wailing mass of humanity in need of a saviour.
The choices the moviemakers make with the characters they created are curious at best and moderately infuriating at worst. The movie has a powerful message to take home - as a coda, I'd like to ask how well the movie would have played if the protagonist was a man. Would its flaws stick out with a higher degree of soreness or would its overall impact subdue any doubters?
That being said, if a man were to be recast in the role of Varshini, he'd have some tough shoes to fill, and I'm not saying that because she wears high heels (she doesn't). Nayantara is an anomaly in Indian cinema. She is as adept at playing a damsel purely stationed as eye candy as she is at carrying a movie squarely on her shoulders. Her charisma, charm, talent and screen presence are extremely malleable, and that makes her one of the most fully-rounded actors of our time. Fear not, she lives up to all this praise and then some even while essaying an underwritten character.
The cast of villagers led by Ramachandran, Sunu Lakshmi and the boys from Kaaka Muttai do a bang-up job of wringing every last bit of emotion and despair.
The score neither fails them nor does it offer anything truly special. Composer Ghibran's use of The City Of Prague's Philharmonic Orchestra is spellbinding but only in patches. He resorts to the tried and tested in the moments it matters the most, and gets a few points docked for that.
Like the score and the narrative, the cinematography too dips after the first half. The interesting shot structure and personalized storytelling are mostly replaced by slow-motion shots of Nayantara walking away after telling a man what's what and simplistic shot-reverse shots.
While most people in my cinema hall seemed compelled by the movie and Nayantara, I was drawn to the movie's machinations. The moviemakers chose this narrative style since cinema, while being an art form, is also both a business and entertainment. So does the film bastardize itself in trying to make money and make itself accessible? No. Does it have an improper understanding of how politics and bureaucracy work? Yes. Could it have been executed better? Yes. Is this movie just a set-up for a sequel that seems far more far-fetched? Yes. Could it have done without those atrocious TV panel segments? Y-E-S.
But the most pertinent question of all: Does the movie entertain an audience? Yes.