Nothing I saw in Director Vijay’s two previous films – the mish-mash Malayalam remake Kireedom which was let down by unnecessary masala and the weirdly funny Poi Solla Porom – could have prepared me for what I experienced in Madrasapattinam. In fact, I wouldn’t have realized that this is the same director if not for the one common linking factor between all of them: they were remakes. However, while his previous choices of movies to remake were both from within our country, namely Malluwood and Bollywood – he has chosen Hollywood as his inspiration this time. But that old adage that says, “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best!” has never been more true than in Madrasapattinam. In choosing the modern classic Titanic as his inspiration, Director Vijay couldn’t have made a better choice of source material. The timeless tale of the love between the rich girl and the poor boy, the unique setting of the Indian independence struggle, and some top-notch technical presentation all add up to what is surely Vijay’s best movie to date and easily one of the best movies of the year so far. (What a way to begin the second half of 2010, might I add!)

Apart from the tale of the underdog, the tale of the opposites attract which is the staple of every rom-com there has ever been, and a number of other clichéd stories – the tale of a romance between a man and woman from different strata of society has easily been one of the oft-used stories to sell a movie. However, this tale wouldn’t just work in any setting, and if the setting had been as repeated as the story was, then this sort of movie would’ve pretty much been extinct by now. What keeps the story fresh is the originality of the setting and how the director sells the story. If in Titanic, it was the historical setting of one of the greatest human tragedies ever, in Madrasapattinam, it is the huge canvas of one of the greatest independence struggles in modern history. But Director Vijay has also taken clever cues from James Cameron in the way he has chosen to tell his tale.

Titanic worked because it focused mainly on the romance between Jack and Rose covered in the backdrop of the Titanic tragedy. Vijay’s movie follows similar patterns. The romance here is at the heart of the movie. The Indian struggle for independence is a mere passer-by in this tale; one that just provides a unique backdrop that makes the old feel fresh and allows the technical team to run amok. Yes, there are familiar chants like “Inquilab Zindabad!” and quite a few familiar historical names being brandished from Mount Batten to Kamarajar to Gandhi and even people close to the hero losing their lives to British brutality. But all of that form the periphery; this is first and foremost a love story between a man and woman from different countries and the usual travails that accompany such a doomed romance. It proves to be a wise decision because had the director decided to touch our patriotic chords and enlarged his focus, it would have diluted the emotional core which is the film’s selling point.

Another plus is that the director does not disguise the fact that this movie is inspired by Cameron’s classic, but rather embraces it. So, we have the entire movie being told in a flashback from the point-of-view of Amy Wilkinson who is reaching the end of her life. She has just found out that she requires head surgery as the result of blunt force knock that she received quite a long time ago. Of course, that knock had to come as the result of her romance with a poor dhobi during her visit to India under British Presidency. As a slew of emotions flood over her, she suddenly decides to visit Madrasapattinam (now Chennai, of course) before she goes under the knife and is accompanied by her granddaughter (cue Titanic obviously!). It has to be noted that even the past-present interludes show obvious inspirations – like the first time she lands in modern Chennai where the film moves effortlessly between frames featuring those older taxis and the modern Fiats and Auto-rickshaws to show the switches in Amy’s perspective reminiscent of the first time we are introduced to shots of the beautiful Titanic in the 1997 masterpiece.

However, these are more observations than anything else in reality. When you look past all that, this rich girl-poor boy romance is about as Tamil cinema as it could possibly get. The rich girl is a very young Amy Wilkinson (Amy Jackson), the daughter of Madrasapattinam’s governor, who first sets foot on Indian soil in the year 1945, and immediately takes note of the handsome hero Paruthi (Arya) when he saves a donkey’s life from a freewheeling car. The poor but brave Paruthi is from a dhobi caste whose homeland is going to be destroyed to make way for a beautiful golf course. Amy is soon forcefully engaged to be married to Robert Ellis (Alex O’Nell), the Commissioner of Police, who openly voices his discomfort over Amy’s frequent visits to Paruthi’s location. The stakes are raised when a one-on-one wrestling match is setup between Robert and Paruthi where there is more at stake than just love. Even though there is a clear winner, the bad blood doesn’t stop. When the news of India’s independence is announced, the whole of India celebrates while Paruthi has to figure out how to keep Amy in the country when the British rule ends, and Robert and the Governor take to more brutal means to stop that from happening.

Vijay has clearly learnt from his past mistakes. In Kireedom, he diverted the focus of the film which was a character-driven drama with unnecessary masala; and in Poi Solla Porom, he introduced some not-needed melodrama in a comedy. In Madrasapattinam, the focus on the romance is very clear. There is lot of great innocent humour – mostly involving Paruthi and his gang’s inabilities with English and Amy’s translator Nambi’s (the late V.M.C. Haneefa) language problems and photo-inhibitions – and some patriotic fervour in the form of the aforementioned wrestling match and the brave acts of some members of Paruthi’s caste; but the best moments of the film involve Amy and Paruthi. Even these scenes are laced with innocence like when Paruthi speaks to his sister in English or when Amy and Paruthi converse in each other’s mother tongues on a boat in the middle of the Cooum River. There are many such sweet moments to mention all of which, when added to Amy and Paruthi’s strong characterization, lead to Madrasapattinam being an unqualified success at its primary motive which is to be a great romance.

I have never held much esteem for Arya’s emoting capabilities, but there are certain roles like this one which suit him perfectly. Arya can look smart, pull off a brave face, and show the anger and screen-presence needed to handle Paruthi effectively. There are very few scenes where he is required to show his thus-far limited emotional abilities, even during the climax, and that is why he is the best choice for Paruthi. Amy Jackson is quite simply stunning as Amy, and I am not talking only about the looks here. She has to be the emotional core of the film, has a slightly longer screen-time than even Arya, and has the more difficult role as she is stuck with the more emotional scenes of the two. But she proves to be quite adept at handling the character’s difficulties with her father, stepmother (there had to be one in a Tamil film!) and fiancé, and more than anything else, her lip-synching is pretty much unblemished – that is something that cannot be said about even North-Indian actresses making their way into Kollywood.

Able support is provided by veterans Nasser, the late V.M.C. Haneefa (who receives the honorary first-reel montage), and Balasingh. The younger members of the cast forming up Arya’s gang are made up of some familiar (I placed one actor from the similar role he played alongside Karthi in Paiyya) and not-so-familiar faces, but all of them come up trumps even in some of heavier moments towards the climax. The British contingent that makes up Robert, the Governor, the present-day Amy & her granddaughter, and some supporting characters is solid but largely unknown.

Technically, the film is an unmatched triumph. There are some blemishes here and there – in long-shots from the Governor’s palace (which obviously look CGI) and a few shots of the great Spencer’s building –, but the art-design by V. Selvakumar and cinematography by Nirav Shah rival the best of what other bigger budget features have to offer. The familiar shots of Chennai Central, the Mount Road tram lines, and the Adyar Cooum river present places we are familiar with in an entirely new light. Hey Ram was an astounding movie but it wasn’t set in Chennai exactly, and that is what makes Madrasapattinam’s presentation feel fresh even though it borrows a few tricks from Kamal’s masterpiece. G.V. Prakash Kumar delivers yet another wonderful soundtrack to add to his already impressive Aayirathil Oruvan. Pookal Pookum Tharunam… is easily one of the best melodies of the year in terms of both lyrical content and music while Udit Narayan’s nasal singing all but ruins the fun-filled Vaama Duraiyamma…, and Meghame… is vaguely evocative of Mitwa… from Lagaan. Madrasapattinam is also his best background composition as he proves equally capable of providing for the mellower romantic scenes as for the suspense-driven chase through Chennai Central.

In highlighting just how much of a great movie Madrasapattinam is, its flaws that occur most notably during the final moments should not go unnoticed. After keeping the movie free from cinematic conventions for much of its running time, the director falters very badly in the climax. I am sure there were much better options available to Vijay for providing a fitting closure to this tale, but what we see in Madrasapattinam is easily the most cinematic – let’s just say of Tamil filmi nature – of them all. It’s hard not to feel a slight bad taste when a film as great as this one is let down by such a weak climax. But that is hardly a reason to hold a grudge against the film. Madrasapattinam is easily one of the best films of 2010 (in my book, top three alongwith Thamizh Padam and Aayirathil Oruvan) and I am hard-pressed to think of reasons why someone should not watch this film.