I initially wanted to write a regular review of “Mersal”, starring Vijay, which I found myself enjoying more and more with each repeated viewing. And that’s saying something because I am not a fan of Vijay at all. But a conversation with my cousin inspired me to pen something else. “Why is it OKAY when Vijay stars in a mass movie, but not Ajith?” he asked me. It is important to note that at this point in our conversation, I was shitting all over Ajith’s previous movies like “Vedalam”, “Veeram” and his most recent abomination, “Vivegam”. As you probably figured out, my cousin is a huge fan of Ajith.
WTF does a ‘mass movie’ mean?
The term ‘mass’ movie or more commonly known as a ‘masala’ movie does not refer to the spices you would put in curry. In the Indian film industry, these terms pretty much mean popcorn blockbuster. What differs from the Hollywood and Indian cinema landscape is that Hollywood pop culture generally revolves around franchises and giant properties – Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc – while Indian pop culture, for the most part, revolves around the MOVIE STARS. Rajnikanth, Kamal Hassan, Vijay, Ajith, etc.
Even the deep animosity that runs between fans are similar. Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans have been fighting for galaxy supremacy since the dawn of time. And just like fans of the DCEU and MCU, Vijay fans and Ajith fans beat each other to a pulp send angry tweets to one another on a daily. And if you’re a fan who points out flaws of your own beloved properties/star, then you’re deemed a traitor and will be stoned to death or at the very least, kicked out of your family’s hypothetical Rajnikanth fan club. #thanksdad
Whether it’s Hollywood or Bollywood, popcorn blockbusters are usually a mixture of larger than life characters and a middle finger to real-world science. How is Rajnikanth able to singlehandedly beat the living crap out of 52 people? I don’t know, ask John Wick. I have no problem suspending my disbelief and accepting the fact that a magician is also quite possibly a ninja, just like I have no problem accepting the fact that a radioactive spider bite could turn you into a superhero. It’s AWESOME. But if you watch “Fast and Furious 6” and find Vin Diesel jumping from his car to catch Letty mid-air, more annoying than awesome, then don’t bother watching any Indian masala movie, too.
But don’t get me wrong…
Being a masala movie DOES NOT excuse poor logic.
I know, it sounds like I just contradicted everything I wrote above. Hear me out. Every movie/franchise, regardless of how over the top it is, needs to establish certain rules or a sandbox if you will. The sandbox can be completely batshit crazy, but within the batshit crazy sandbox, things have to be CONSISTENT. Within the batshit crazy sandbox, characters and their motivations need to make sense.
“Mersal” for the most part, does not suffer from this problem, but it is not void of it. The final action sequence standouts in particular. The unspoken rules that the movie establishes at the start is:
- Maaran is the doctor. Sure, he may push a few security guards away to save a person’s life, but he’s generally not someone who would engage in a fist fight.
- Vetri is the magician/badass/ass-kicker.
In fact, there is an awesome action scene that takes place midway through the movie where Vetri beats the crap outta the villains and saves Maaran. It makes perfect sense. However, in the final action sequence, Maaran tells his injured brother, Vetri, “Who says a doctor can’t fight? Now watch me kick some bad guy butt.” While the action sequence that transpires immediately after is fun to watch, it somewhat devalues whatever that happened before. If Maaran can fight, why did Vetri need to save him? And if Maaran can fight, why then did he and his brother Vetri need to switch their clothes before the cops arrived?
Also, the entire back and forth Maaran has with his adopted mother (Kovai Sarala) concerning his parentage does not make an ounce of sense.
Having said that, these inconsistencies do not make me frustrated. Okay, that’s a lie. It does make me frustrated a little. But there is enough good stuff in this movie to make me forgive that minor error.
What does annoy the crap outta me is when Vijay’s character in “Bairavaa” gives a girl flowers and professes his love for her, immediately after she tells him a story of how her best friend got raped by a corrupt businessman.
Her: My best friend got raped and murdered.
Him: Oh, I love you.
Me: KILL ME.
I experienced the same kinda frustration watching “Thor: Ragnarok” recently. Why is Thor cracking jokes while talking to the fire demon, Surtur? It’s a comedy. I get it. But the Thor movies have never been comedies. And Thor has never been a comedian. Are you telling me that after Loki “died” in “Thor: The Dark World”, Thor went for comedy classes to cope with his sadness? Hmm, now that I think of it, it kinda makes sense.
The meat behind the Masala.
Mersal is first and foremost a revenge thriller, but at the same time, it is also an explicit commentary on the medical landscape in India. I’m not saying a movie needs to have a MESSAGE to be good. On the contrary, when it comes to popcorn blockbusters, more often than not, the simplest of approaches is usually the best. But time and time again, popcorn blockbusters try to be something MORE. When it works, like in the case of “Mersal,” it’s awesome; when it doesn’t (which is, most of the time), it comes off as pretentious.
Rajnikanth’s “Kabali” comes to mind. There are flashbacks in “Kabali” that TRY to comment on the struggles Indians in Malaysia had to face prior to the country’s independence. Only, the entire arc feels completely forced. It’s as if the movie pauses and goes, “Okay guys, this is where we insert our completely-irrelevant-to-the-story message,” and then turns into a sappy love story?
In “Mersal” the message is delivered in an organic way. We’re treated to a fantastic flashback in which we see Vetrimaaran (Vetri and Maaran’s dad, also played by Vijay) and his wife (Nithya Menen) get screwed over by a corrupt doctor. All those years later, Vetri is avenging his father’s death. While the message is as obvious as it gets, it doesn’t feel like the movie is trying to shove the message down your throat. Because we understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Even when Vetri delivers a speech right at the end, providing facts and figures about the medical industry, it works.
Songs that tell stories.
Just like how being a popcorn blockbuster does not excuse a lapse in logic, being a musical does not mean you can throw in as many songs as you like for no reason. Does the song add anything to the movie? Does the movie deteriorate if the song is removed? Take “La La Land” for example. I love the movie and it is still one of my favourite movies of the year. But is the opening number really necessary, though? It does a good job of letting people know that it’s going to be a musical, but would the movie be any different without the song? No.
“Mersal” comes with four songs. Two of which are just there for the sake of having a hot chick dance. Don’t get me wrong. The songs are nice and I wouldn’t complain if they’re playing on the radio. But how does “Maacho” and “Neethanae” add anything to the movie? I might give “Maacho” the slight pass because at the very least there was some manipulation going on, on Vetri’s end during the song sequence – like him bribing the Russian lady. But “Neethanae” is completely pointless. Love songs only work if romance plays an important part in the movie. “Sirukki Vaasam” works perfectly in Dhanush’s “Kodi” and “A Lovely Night” in “La La Land”. With that said, the other two songs in “Mersal” – “Mersal Arasan” and “Aalaporaan Thamizhan” – are EXCELLENT. In fact, I will even make the bold statement that it’s some of AR Rahman’s best ever.
Look guys, I’m not saying “Mersal” is a perfect film, far from it in fact. The flaws are easy to spot. The flashbacks take up a large chunk of the runtime and Sathyaraj is completely wasted as the police officer – he’s nothing but a plot device to transition to the flashbacks. However, together with screenwriter K.V. Vijayendra Prasad (“Baahubali 1 & 2”), director Atlee has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable film with a strong emotional core and protagonists we can get behind. Even the overabundance of Vijay worshipping that happens throughout the movie isn’t as annoying as many of his other films because he’s a DOCTOR. Heck, this movie won me over the moment Dr. Maaran speaks Tamil at an international press conference and all the non-Indian people in the crowd used earphones that are attached to a translating device. Believe it or not, in most Tamil movies including VIVEGAM, the Americans/Europeans can all somehow understand and speak Tamil fluently.
To answer the question that started this entire piece, “Mass” is not a measure of quality. Calling a movie MASS, does not indicate whether a movie is worth watching or not. There are good popcorn blockbusters and there are bad ones. There are also shitty ones, which Ajith has been acting in recently.