Director: N Krishna
Cast: Aari, Shivada Nair, Thambi Ramiah, Prashant Narayanan, Salim Kumar
Nedunchaalai’s most poignant moment arrives just under ten minutes into the movie. We barely know ‘Tharpai’ Murugan then. But his notoriety already precedes him – in whispered tales among truck drivers, on those nightly highway jaunts of theirs. A tea-shack blares ‘80s Tamil music on old-fashioned speakers; and at a rickety wooden table, two men listen raptly. The narrator is an old man. His voice is a drawl, rough and scratchy, his story punctuated with racking coughs; and he narrates in a barely audible whisper. His audience – a truck driver and his mate – have to lean in to catch what he’s saying. But they do so reverently. He’s obviously important. They have learnt it the hard way, having ignored his advice once. They are wiser now. This man knew Tharpai Murugan, the legendary highway smuggler, they realise as much – and was perhaps, a part of his life.
The men resume their cross-country trek. And, Tharpai Murugan is born. On a highway, as would befit the ‘thozhil’ he would get into later, when the jeep his mother is travelling in meets with an accident. An old fruit-seller adopts him; and Murugan thrives under his care – he sleeps in a hammock fashioned out of a cloth, is bathed expertly, fed and smartened. Vaigai Nadhi Kaatre, a lullaby in the voice of Sathya C, documents this to brutally-poignant perfection. Brimming with raw emotion, it reaches out and grabs your throat; and is a distant echo of Chinna Thaai Aval… from Thalapathi. Before long, we are silently sniffling into our tissues. And it’s just been ten minutes.
When you think about it, Murugan (Aari in a splendid role) is much like Thalapathi’s Surya – abandoned at birth and thrust into foster care (albeit a loving one), he grows up to be notoriously famous for the wrong reasons – a victim of circumstances. And weirdly enough, you now know he is meant to be liked; smuggler or not.
Nedunchaalai’s beautifully recreated 80s setting – painted in varying shades of gray – cannot be faulted, right down to the three-letter code on registration plates. And the obsolete terminology (“trunk calls”). The dusty and shambling yellow wagon that Murugan drives is quite charming; as is the nose-ring that he sports. He’s scruffy for the most part; unkempt hair and a wild beard; a dirty lungi around his waist; and we could say, at a respectable distance from the screen, that he probably reeks of alcohol as well. Yes, we are judgmental like that.
So, it comes as a huge surprise when Manga (Shivada Nair) – who runs Dilli Dhaba (more authentic in Tamil) on a parallel highway, falls for him. Not before he smashes down her modest dhaba in drunken rage, refuses to pay for the dosais and parottas he had wolfed down and threatens her with dire consequences when he’s taken away by the police. Manga doesn’t know he’s the legendary Tharpai Murugan then. But it would have made little difference to her anyway. She runs a humble joint along the highway; a neat, printed pavadai (and a co-ordinated set of bangles) tucked in at the waist, as she doles out mutton chukka to ravenous truck drivers. She braves the lecherous stares and sexual innuendos (seems oblivious to them, in fact); calling out orders to “master” – a hilarious Thambi Ramiah who adds colour just when things get too solemn. And with flourishing business, trouble arrives as well. The “helpful” inspector (Prashant Narayanan) has other intentions, there’s Murugan who has sworn vengeance and his conniving mates seem too threatening to ignore. Little do you realise that Sekar (Salim Kumar) is here for more than just laughs – two hours in, we are quite sure he’s none other than Lord Varys in a loud silk shirt and a head full of hair.
At this juncture, Nedunchaalai’s script is not devoid of clichés; and cultural and moral insinuations come aplenty as well. When Murugan, in what’s arguably one of the best scenes in the movie, rescues Manga from a potentially-threatened existence, she raises grateful eyes to him; and we see stirrings of romance. But she doesn’t know that he does it as much for himself than for her. To her though, he’s the savior. And she brims with gratitude. Here, one can possibly say that there’s always the cloak of an insular and prejudiced 80s backdrop to take refuge under. Having said that, Manga doesn’t belong in that era. She rides a Bajaj M80 along deserted roads and is no paragon of virtue (for that, we are ever so grateful). She passes off beef as mutton, surreptitiously steals milk from an old milk-seller, kicks the shins of the lecherous inspector; and makes love to Murugan – who, much to our delight, seems visibly taken aback. But that’s just Aari’s impressive performance for you. And Shivada Nair (a stunning debut) is no less remarkable. She’s a tad too exuberant at first, but sobers up sufficiently post intermission, as the occasion demands.
What Nedunchalai has in its favour is a riveting script; and a narration that’s artfully choreographed (the last few minutes are a drag, but who cares). When a scene gets too poignant to process, close on its heels comes a surprise that makes you laugh out loud in relief. And that’s where we see director N Krishna in his element. After Sillunu Oru Kadhal, Nedunchaalai catches you off-guard; it’s almost like you never knew the director at all. One thing is obvious though. He doesn’t want to be typecast. Just like his characters. And speaking of which, no matter how much the haunting BGM makes us believe, Aari’s Murugan is no poochandi.