7aum Arivu, the second collaboration between actor/director pairing of Surya and A.R. Murugadoss, has huge expectations riding on it. Their first venture Ghajini underwhelmed with its dumbed down presentation (in comparison to its inspiration Memento) of short-term memory loss, but the bittersweet romance between Surya and Asin more than made up for it. It was generally well-received and proved to be an immense BO success. 7aum Arivu also tackles difficult scientific and historical subjects but does so in similar fashion to Ghajini by diluting certain aspects of the overall storyline. Though this could have proven to be disappointing, we are able to overlook it thanks to the strength of the overall presentation.

The film begins in the 5th century with documentary style footage focusing on the exploits of Pallava prince Bodhidharma (Surya) who is an expert in all forms of martial arts and medicine. He is sent to China on a mission where he becomes a Godlike figure after helping them overcome a life-threatening illness. This section concludes by reminding us that we know little of such a person who is still revered as a God in all parts of China. These 20 minutes are, without a doubt, the film’s zenith where the painstaking attention to detail is visible in every frame. Although the rest of the film is by no means a let-down, it doesn’t touch the seemingly impossible highs of this sequence.

In the present day, we are introduced to Arvind (Surya), a circus artist, who is on the trails of genetic engineering student Subha Srinivasan (Shruti Haasan). She also takes a liking to him and both of them start spending more time together. However, it is later revealed that Subha’s advances have ulterior motives as well. Arvind is one of the descendants of Bodhidharma, and she believes it would be possible to reinvigorate his talents through Arvind’s DNA. Soon, they find themselves being chased by Chinese agent Dong Lee (Johnny Tri Nguyen) who wants to eliminate her and destroy her research, as it would throw a spanner in his government’s plans to hold India for ransom.

Right off the bat, the director needs to be appreciated for taking on such a subject. Though not all aspects of the past/present and science/traditions correlations work, his passion for the history of Tamilians is evident throughout the film. Many dialogues on how most of our traditional customs are not only religious but have scientific reasoning behind them are loaded with reverence for our history. The scientific aspects of the story are also neatly incorporated. The film certainly doesn’t overwhelm us with information when talking about DNA and genetic research, but neither does it trivialize them by pandering to the lowest common denominator. Despite the film’s other failings, the director needs to be appreciated for his efforts to do something out of the norm as far as Tamil cinema is concerned.

Arguably the film’s biggest drawback is the romance between Arvind and Subha. This entire portion seems superfluous and feels like it was shoehorned in to make way for a couple of duets and a pathos number. And although its presence is understandable considering this is a Tamil film, the way it is handled is especially disappointing considering the strength and cuteness of the romance in Ghajini. Thankfully, with the exception of a lone song, it doesn’t rear its head once the film moves into thriller territory in the second half. The other big minus is the way the climax has been handled. Considering the buildup, the final showdown between good and evil is relatively low-key. It lacks energy compared to the action sequence in the initial prologue and doesn’t incorporate enough aspects of Bodhidharma’s talents to be truly noteworthy. This is a disappointment because it means we don’t leave the theater on the high the film deserved.

Surya shines as Bodhidharma in the initial sequence. Through strong usage of his eyes and facial expressions (like the silent smile), he is effectively able to capture the serene nature of the Buddhist monk. Though it is not going to land him any awards soon, the fact that we are able to overlook the star in him to see only the character he is playing should be noted. As Arvind, he doesn’t have a lot of scope for acting. However, even minor sequences like his outbursts at Shruti or the scientist demonstrate his versatility and overall growth as an actor in recent years.

For Shruti Haasan, there couldn’t have been a better dream debut than this one. Not only does she look absolutely ravishing, she shares almost equal screen space with Surya and is the driving force for the film’s plot. Though her voice and Tamil diction are slightly off-putting, she is able to win us over with a strong portrayal. It is not one of those “announced her arrival with a bang” performances but is enough to make us sit up and take notice; though some people might not be surprised by this considering her lineage. Johnny Tri Nguyen’s performance has been modeled off of Robert Patrick’s legendary depiction of T-1000 in Terminator 2. Like the latter, he also doesn’t speak much but is able to convey a chilling menace with his looks and remorseless actions alone.

Given the fact that I loved the picturization of both Suttum Vizhi… and Oru Maalai… from Ghajini, both the songs and the manner in which they are picturized are disappointing. Apart from the picturesque locations, the picturization for both Mun Andhi… and Yellae Lama… is lacklustre. The low-key picturization of Innum Enna Thozha… doesn’t do its vigorous tune any justice. Oh Ringa Ringa… fares better but is nothing to write home about while Yamma Yamma… feels completely unnecessary and is sure to have people taking bathroom/cigarette breaks. Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography shines in the initial sequences as he is able to evocatively capture the tranquil atmosphere of the Chinese countryside. Anthony’s editing, which is usually one of the film’s strengths, has a few missteps here especially in the second half where some sequences feel desperately overlong.

7aum Arivu is the kind of film that needs to be encouraged more often in Tamil cinema. It doesn’t have the usual trappings of a commercial movie with a big star in the center, like a separate comedy track or unnecessary melodrama. It also conveys a nice, pertinent message in the modern world, though not necessarily in the best manner. Sure, it isn’t flawless by any means and the romance and songs feel like unnecessary concessions made by the director, but they aren’t enough to drag down the overall quality of the film. As a result, 7aum Arivu is worth watching where the brilliance of the director, his technical crew, and the actors shine through above all else.