This review contains spoilers.
Somewhere in the second act of Neeyum Naanum, Karthik (played by Bala Ganapathi William [BGW], who’s also the director of the film)’s in-laws tell him that he shouldn’t burden himself with the responsibility of taking care of his wife, Oviya (Jasmin Michael), who’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After all, he’s young and has his whole life ahead of him. Instead, he should let them (the parents) take care of her.
I was immediately reminded of a story I read a while back, of a woman who got raped two weeks after her wedding while her husband was out playing ball with his friends. Following that incident, the woman was unable to stand the touch of men, not her father, not even her own husband whom she loved very much, as it would trigger memories of the traumatic episode. Her husband stood by her side as a good friend and confidant, helping her in any manner she would allow, in hopes that one day she would “recover” and they’d be able to resume their romantic relationship. But weeks turned to months and months to years and eventually, the man decides to walk away from his wife and move on with his life — a divorce, another girlfriend, and then a new wife and even a couple of kids.
Now, it’s easy to brand the husband as the bad guy who went back on his marital vows. It’s easy to say that he should’ve stayed with his wife for as long as it took for her to get back to her normal self. But that’s the thing about human beings, isn’t it? It’s never easy. We’re complex and nuanced individuals who are never truly selfless. Reading the story, I understand why the woman didn’t like her husband touching her. She suffered something so terrible, something so cruel, it’s unimaginable what the damage does to one’s mental state. But I also understand why the man eventually walked away — how long can you be in a relationship (especially at such a young age) with someone without experiencing the gradations that make up a romantic relationship? Intimacy is, after all, a crucial part of every healthy romantic relationship.
I tell this story as I feel Neeyum Naanum could have been a much better film had it taken such an approach. (substitute rape with Alzheimer’s). Sure, a disease may be a convenient hook, as opposed to say exploring far more unclear circumstances as seen in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (or Gautham Menon’s Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya if you’re looking for something within the realm of Tamil-language movies), but there are complexities to be explored in these convenient situations too. What if the protagonist takes a step back to process what his in-laws are saying? What if the movie asks the question how far is Karthik willing to go — is he willing to sacrifice an entire life full of possibilities and romance for a woman who struggles to remember his name — before he finally walks away? Or does he remain in her life as her guardian, but pursue sexual relations elsewhere?
But BGW isn’t interested in shades of grey and difficult questions and Neeyum Naanum is all about the big bursts of emotions — mainly glowering and crying. So, of course, Karthik scolds his in-laws for even bringing up such a blasphemous suggestion. But, once again, melodramatic movies that operate binarily aren’t automatically bad movies. They can work as loveable pieces of entertainment vehicles. So, why then does Neeyum Naanum not work?
For one, Karthik and Oviya’s relationship, which is the crux of the film, is an unconvincing one. Karthik bumps into Oviya at a bus stand and immediately falls head over heels for her. He tries talking to her. She ignores him. He keeps saying hello. She continues ignoring him until finally, she turns to him and sarcastically asks if she could get another tub of ice cream. In the rain (of course), he rides his bike to the nearest grocery store. When he gets back, she’s gone, but not without accidentally leaving her red shawl behind (again… of course). He picks it up and screams “woo!” like how a 15-year-old boy who studied in a same-sex school all his life would, meeting a pretty girl for the very first time. They meet again, a few moons later when he sees her walking across the street. He borderline harasses her, takes note of her name by looking at her office tag and then adds her on Facebook. A couple of days later, they go for lunch. He immediately confesses his love. She isn’t interested. He begs her for a chance — “just two weeks please… just to weeks.”
I wondered then if this would turn out to be a story that explores obsession and the inability to let go, like 500 Days of Summer. But after some hesitation, Oviya says yes to Karthik’s two weeks proposal. Karthik and Oviya end up working together on a project (Karthik is a videographer and Oviya works for an ad agency). When the weeks are up — nothing happens on screen during those weeks besides drab song sequences and comedy tracks involving supporting characters — Oviya tells him she’s in love with him and then they get married. Just like that? I thought to myself.
BGW doesn’t put their relationship under a microscope and observe its intricate details. We’re not given a chance to examine their ticks, their pet peeves, their flaws, their likes and dislikes. There is no sexual tension or broiling chemistry. In fact, we don’t know anything about their relationship beyond cheesy one-liners. We don’t need logical answers to the question why are they in love? After all, romantic relationships are rarely ever logical. But the question needed to be asked and explored. And because we don’t feel their love, our stomach doesn’t sink when the bomb eventually drops.
Then there’s the screenplay (also penned by BGW) that lacks structure, translated to a picture that doesn’t quite flow. This is a film that would’ve benefited without the intrusive subplots that do nothing but bog it down. Like the romantic one involving Karthik’s friend, Viki, and Oviya’s sister, Madhavi. Or what about the whole angle with Oviya’s ex-boyfriend? Worst of all: Oviya’s dad character. Not only are his brief subplots unnecessary, he also seems to be suffering from some sort of personality disorder. First, he’s unhappy that his daughter rudely rejects the guy he wants her to marry; then he apologises and tells her he wants to meet her lover; then he tells Karthik he dislikes him; then he apologises to Karthik. All this happens within the span of a few minutes. Trim the fat and Neeyum Naanum could’ve been a far tighter affair.
This is a movie that severely lacks style. There isn’t a single memorable frame, not a single edit worth talking about. And I don’t mean the film needed to be blatantly flamboyant. We’re not talking about showboating here, but rather actualizing a particular mood through staging, framing, texture and colour — a director’s vision as they say. It isn’t just about recording what’s on paper, it’s about breathing life into the screenplay to create a cinematic experience. And a cinematic experience, this was not.
Neeyum Naanum isn’t all bad. The performances, both by BGW and Jasmin Michael are commendable (though, at times overly dramatic). I also love the scene where Oviya says, “I love you Aanandha” as opposed to “Karthik” after a night of lovemaking. It’s a small scene, but an impactful one (but I question why BGW found it necessary to include a scene where Karthik overtly explains everything to the doctor [and to the audience] — “Doctor… she mentioned her ex-boyfriend’s name!”). I enjoyed Varmman’s musical score and soundtrack (but found the song sequences to be egregious; an unbearable amount of quick cuts and zooms to mask the noticeably shabby choreography). I like the premise — it is, in concept, a solid one — but as a whole, Neeyum Naanum doesn’t quite land.
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I like the premise -- it is, in concept, a solid one -- but as a whole, Neeyum Naanum doesn't quite land.