After all the hype surrounding the Diwali releases, it is fair to say that the end-product was underwhelming. 7aum Arivu was entertaining but most definitely not worthy of the pre-release hype while Velayudham made no bones about what it was, an old-fashioned entertainer that at least proved to be better than Vijay’s recent fiascos. With the lull in Kollywood after that, trust Selvaraghavan to give us a quality piece of cinema because Mayakkam Enna is exactly that. Easily one of the best films of the year, it not only functions as a great character study but also highlights something that is sorely lacking in Tamil cinema right now – that thing called director’s vision. Selvaraghavan is one of the few who has always strived for that but rarely has he delivered on that vision in as resounding a fashion as he does with this film, which is the most coherent since his stunning feature debut.

Mayakkam Enna, by the words of the central character himself, traverses the story of Karthik Swaminathan (Dhanush). Having lost his parents very young, he and his sister have been brought up by his friend Sunder (Sunder Ramu) and his father, the traditional cool dad in any youth drama. Their gang is rounded up by Ramya (Soni Barring) and Shankar (Mathivanan), both of whom have grown up together with them under the same roof. Karthik is a brilliant but largely unknown photographer looking for that one big break that will change his luck. The complications begin when Sunder introduces his girlfriend Yamini (Richa Gangopadhyay). They spar at first but, in a classic tale of opposites attract, fall intensely in love with each other but are unable to proclaim their feelings because of Sunder.

The entire first half is built upon this premise and while, on paper, it doesn’t sound like much, the happenings on-screen are much more attention worthy. Karthik’s struggles to strike it big and his betrayal at the hands of Discovery photographer Mathesh (Ravi Prakash) are heart-wrenching and it is easy to get on his side as everything goes against him. Meanwhile, the budding untold romance between him and Yamini is beautifully depicted in typical Selva fashion. Both Yamini and Karthik are in a tight spot because of Sunder but are unable to overlook the magnetic attraction between them. Selva, as usual, doesn’t believe in words and a lot of the scenes featuring the pair have no dialogue whatsoever. Still, the looks they give each other is enough to convince us of the strong feelings that are developing underneath the ostensible dislike they show for each other. The half ends with them finally conveying their feelings in one of the film’s many beautifully picturized scenes.

After a light-hearted half like that, the film takes a turn for the serious as is usual for Selvaraghavan. Sunder’s father gets Karthik and Yamini married and, for a while, everything is happy in their world. However, tragedy strikes as Karthik sees Mathesh achieve glory after glory for one of his pictures and isn’t able to swallow the fact that it is he who should’ve been in that position. His world spirals out of control and he slowly starts losing his mind. The rest of the film follows Karthik’s road to self-discovery aided by his strong, caring wife.

Arguably the biggest problem in all of Selva’s films thus far has been the tonal inconsistency. Though this was prevalent in both 7G Rainbow Colony and Pudhupettai, it was never much of an issue until Aayirathil Oruvan. The latter was the perfect case of a film of two halves, both serving as polar opposites of each other. The first was a light-hearted adventure while the second served more like a display of the director’s artistic vision. As a result mainstream audiences were left scratching their heads at the sudden shift in tone while sensible viewers were unable to overlook the film’s inconsistent writing despite a strong latter half. Mayakkam Enna has the same issue but the shift isn’t as jarring as it was in AO. Here also, the film moves from a light, breezy and youthful film in the first half to a full blown character drama in the second. However, the strength of the primary characters, much-improved screenplay and writing from Selvaraghavan, and superior acting make sure the progression feels more natural than it has in any of the director’s previous films.

Another thing that struck me about Mayakkam Enna is how proud it would’ve made Kamal Haasan. In fact, be it the psychotic overtones that have always been present or the overt sexuality or the strength of the female characters, it is hard to ignore Kamal’s influence in Selva’s works. All of the aforementioned are critical to this film as well but they have been meshed together in way that I thought wasn’t possible with Selva. Yamini is easily the best female character he has written. Her love and devotion to her husband even as he’s out of control is easy to understand; Karthik maybe slowly losing his sanity but it isn’t hard to fathom why given what he’s been through. Yamini believes her husband isn’t completely beyond the point of redemption and she makes every effort to make sure that is the case. Largely thanks to the strength of her character and the accompanying writing, it makes it easy for us viewers to believe that Karthik will make it. And though he keeps providing reasons to go against him, the fact that we are on his side is why the film is such an enthralling experience.

If I have to say something against the film, it would be that it veers on melodrama territory at certain points in the second half. Two sequences, in particular, have no right being in the film. Both feature acts of violence and, artistically speaking, it is easy to say that Karthik’s state of mind is pretty clear to the audience by this point that they are largely unnecessary. In addition to that, it is also hard to see the characters on the receiving end forgiving him for the act. Although these aren’t enough to drastically bring down the quality of the film, they definitely take some of the shine off what should’ve been knocking on the doors of being a masterpiece.

Just when you thought Dhanush had reached his peak with the National award winning performance in Aadukalam, he delivers another outstanding one that tops the former. This is arguably his best turn as he brings every facet of Karthik to life and carries the movie on his shoulders. The light-hearted fighting with Richa is something that has always come naturally to him, so it is no surprise that he is effective in the first half. But it is in the second half that he really shines. We feel the pain in his eyes as he walks away dejected after realizing that he has been betrayed by his idol. And his acting as he brings Karthik’s out-of-control character to life is nothing short of magnetic; it is hard to take your eyes off him each time he is on-screen. Suffice to say that he is the most natural actor working in Kollywood right now.

Richa’s mature performance belies the fact that this is her debut in Tamil. She is mostly expected to share flirtatious looks with Dhanush in the first half. However, she really comes into her own in the second half and is able to go toe-to-toe with Dhanush in the scenes they share together which is definitely not an easy task. She especially shines in one pivotal scene where I felt she was exceptional. Deepa Venkat’s voice stands her in good stead throughout. The supporting cast is full of unknowns who all fit their roles, but, make no mistake, this is Dhanush and Richa’s film from start to finish.

Technically, Mayakkam Enna is flawless. Given that Karthik’s profession is photography, it allows cinematographer Ramji to serve up some breathtaking visuals and he doesn’t disappoint. But it is in those dramatic sequences that his work and the rapport he shares with the director truly shine. They don’t just shoot scenes, they compose them. The way the camera lingers on the faces of Dhanush and Richa for each scene allowing the audience to grasp in every emotion in their faces is truly magnificent. Ramji also plays with the lighting in many of the indoor scenes which makes the close-ups even more impressive. Simply put, no film from 2011 has offered this degree of visual splendor.

With this film, G.V. Prakash Kumar has finally outdone Yuvan’s work for Selvaraghavan. All the songs work more like numbers from musicals wherein they have been used as substitutes for dialogues. When listening to the album, the lyrics already made it pretty clear, but Selvaraghavan’s innovative picturization really amplifies this point. Voda Voda… with its graphical flourishes and animated characters serves to bring out Karthik’s state of mind while the group-dance type picturization of Kadhal En Kadhal… makes it more interesting than the lyrics might’ve suggested on the first listen. Naan Sonnadhum Mazhavandhucha… is the only traditional duet in the film serving as perfect backdrop for the couple’s honeymoon, but Pirai Thedum… is the real highlight. The lyrics by Dhanush nicely complement the picturization as Yamini cares for Karthik and the song truly brings out the tender love between them. The background score is perfect with the Mayakkam Enna theme making its presence duly felt during the romantic interludes.

Few directors in Tamil cinema are willing to take chances like this anymore. Selvaraghavan once again shows the rewards that can be reaped if you take the leap of faith. Mayakkam Enna is an emotionally enriching experience that forces you to think about it a lot. And the more you think about it, the more thought you put into the film, the more it will reward you and the more you will realize just how brilliant every individual aspect of the film is. I would be very surprised if any film from 2011 knocks this one from the top of my personal year-end list.