24’s trailers opened with scrambled math equations. The posters carried formulae and diagrams. I must confess, I was apprehensive. I have no fondness for maths. LHS, in my exam sheets, never managed to equal RHS. But Vikram Kumar has done his math exceptionally well. Scenes are meticulously set up. And as we step closer to solving the problem of the film, our wits are tested, and tested enjoyably.
Until Indru Nettru Naalai came along, time travel was unexplored territory for Tamil cinema. In that film, two friends use a time machine to make easy money. In 24, Mani discovers a special watch. By just adjusting the dials, he can go back in time or forward into the future. What does he do with it? Pretty much anything. From advising his mother to carry an umbrella because he knows it’s going to rain, to changing the fate of a cricket match final. In his past lies the the truth about his mysterious connection with this all-important watch; and his father, Sethuraman, the scientist, and his evil twin, Athreya.
Talking about LHS = RHS, time travel allows a filmmaker to add in elements that do not make sense in the beginning of the film. And to make them comes together. And boy, does Vikram Kumar exploit this space. A piece of chewing gum on the road, or a seemingly irrelevant comment, can hold the key to another knot in the narrative. Every time something like this happens, the crowd expressed their delight with ‘aaaah’ sounds and cheers. When we interviewed him, Vikram Kumar told us that he wanted to make the story accessible to all types of audiences, without oversimplifying it. And that is evident in the screenplay, which surprises us with its twists.
From the rusty gates of a bungalow, to the dusty bookshelf, the machines in the lab, and the whole steampunk ambiance of the flashback portions, the art direction shines in every scene. The amount of thought that has gone into designing these machines is evident, when you have a cocoon shaped baby seat with a built-in pacifier, chirping sounds, nursery rhymes, and the mother’s lullaby playing through the speakers.
There are, however, two jarring issues. The ambiance of the flashback has an old world feel. It has antique guns, steam engine trains, and a sepia tone in the frame. And we’re supposed to believe it’s 1990. Secondly, the locales of Europe look a little too posh, to pass as ‘Megamalai’.
The film also loses some steam in the prolonged romantic sequences between Suriya and Samantha. Samantha is integral to the story, but her scenes tend to have redundant dialogues. For instance, when we know he’s a watch mechanic, having to hear it said ten times in a single scene isn’t exactly easy on the ears.
Still, we know that Vikram Kumar is quite the romantic, given the endearing scenes in Ishq and Manam. I have often been intrigued by the use of ‘dream sequences’ in films (something 24 does extensively). While song montages are fun, with glimpses of the couple’s shared intimacy, one can’t help wonder whether such superficial songs aim to cover inadequacies in the depth of the relationship between the characters. Whether switching to the locales of Poland and Romania is just an excuse to doll up the lead actress in flowing gowns, accompanied by the hero, and a solitary black horse in the white sands. Scenic indeed.
Given that Suriya plays three roles, it’s inevitable that he would be in every scene and frame. As Sethuraman, the geeky scientist, his expressions lacked subtlety and came across as too theatrical. But as Mani, he is in his element; an extension of the cheerful characters we have seen him play time and again. The character to really watch out for is Athreya, the villain. Let’s face it, on screen and off it, Suriya is Kollywood’s ultimate nice-guy. How much fun was it to watch him play a completely evil character, willing to destroy anyone in his path? Meanwhile, Saranya Ponvannan, in a prolonged sequences, proves why she can effortlessly play anyone’s mother on screen.
Suriya the actor deserves praise, but Suriya the producer deserves even more appreciation. Too often, films made on a big budget have little to show for all that money when it comes to production quality. But with 24, it’s evident that the technicians have put in every effort. A shoutout to the VFX team is well deserved. As it is to Suriya, for trusting Vikram Kumar’s unique, but powerful script.
As I leave the cinema hall, I can hear a young man talking to his friend on the phone. He says, “Vjay/Ajith level ku mass illa, good film nonetheless.” I can’t help but wonder when actors became the benchmark to measure the quality of a film. Vikram Kumar, though, is the biggest hero of the film. A carefully written screenplay, with brilliant detail and script, meant that this math problem was truly enjoyable, even for people like me who failed math. LHS=RHS, finally.