When the news first came out that 3 Idiots was going to be remade with Shankar at the helm and starring arguably the most mainstream actor working in Tamil cinema today, I was as apprehensive as anyone could be. 3 Idiots was a great entertainer striking almost all the right notes while also conveying a pertinent message and anchored by a typical Aamir Khan performance with support from the entire cast. It was most certainly a memorable film that had a charm all its own which I thought was difficult to capture in any remake, let alone one from the above combination of people who are more or less known for their masala prowess. In time as news, pictures, and videos of the film started getting leaked, my apprehensions started dying away slowly.

Once I got over the initial shock of the news of a Shankar directed remake – a first for the director – I realized he was one of the best people to be helming the 3 Idiots remake. The original, for all its charm, was not exactly what one would call a subtle film. A lot of its comedy was of the low-brow variety and the film relied on more overt direction rather than subtlety. That sentence could be used to describe Shankar’s direction as well. And Shankar, for all his skills, has chosen to make a carbon copy of 3 Idiots instead of playing around with the story. If it weren’t for the extravagant song sequences, it would actually be difficult for any viewer to identify this as a film directed by the man known for Sivaji or Enthiran. Nanban is a faithful remake of 3 Idiots and with the exception of the language little has been changed or lost in the transformation.

As Nanban opens, Venkat (Srikanth) and Sevarkodi Senthil (Jiiva) get news that their long lost friend Panjavan “Pari” Pariventhan (Vijay) has been found. They drop whatever it is they are doing and go to meet Srivatsan (Sathyan), one of their classmates from college, who reminds them of an old bet and tells them he can take them to Pari. On the journey, Venkat begins reliving memories from their college days. Pari enters their lives on the opening day of college and turns it upside down. Pari earns the friendship of Venkat and Senthil with his happy-go-lucky attitude towards life, the ire of college principal Virumandi “Virus” Sandhanam (Sathyaraj) with his rebellious nature showing a staunch disregard for the rules of the college and the entire system, the enmity of Srivatsan because of their opposing attitudes towards life, and the love of Virus’ daughter Ria (Ileana) with his good nature, wit, and intelligence.

With the exception of some scenes of sentimentality in Senthil’s life, **Nanban **plays out like a comedy. Scenes like the opening day of college where Pari teaches a lesson to the seniors, the trio’s visit to Senthil and Venkat’s houses and the subsequent visit to a marriage, and especially Srivatsan’s speech on Teacher’s Day are filled with laughs. Like 3 Idiots, most of the laughs are straightforward – especially the latter speech – but nonetheless they do have the audience in splits. On the other hand, Pari’s monologues against our system and how we have our students chase scores rather than learning something new have more than a ring of truth when transformed to the Chennai milieu since we have the largest concentration of engineering colleges in the country which promote exactly such attitudes. Nanban isn’t going to change the system any more than 3 Idiots did but it is certainly heartening to see a mainstream film touching on such points.

I don’t consider myself a Vijay detractor but I have to admit that I haven’t had much time for any of his films from Pokkiri to Sura. Having said that, he finally seems to have realized the error his methods as his role in a soft romance like Kaavalan last year proved. Despite another tryst with masala – albeit a better one – in Velayutham, Nanban reiterates this swift change in his career direction. Any comparison with a naturally gifted actor like Aamir Khan is an exercise in futility, so there’s no point in that. The good news is that Vijay seems to be channeling himself from the days of Thulladha Manamum Thullum, Priyamanavale, and Kaadhalukku Mariyaadhai. He doesn’t cop out by imitating Aamir – except in a few places – and downplays the role as required. Nanban is without a doubt his strongest performance since Ghilli. He hits all the right notes to make Pari an equally memorable character like Rancho was in the original. He also nails those critical emotional scenes and they end up having the same impact as 3 Idiots. Fans of the actor old enough to remember the aforementioned earlier movies can take heart from this performance and from the fact that he has a couple of biggies lined up with directors like Murugadoss and Goutham Menon.

Shankar’s casting choices go a long way in recapturing the spirit of the original. Of the primary three, Jiiva’s is the role that required a strong actor and he has already proven his strengths as one. So it should come as no surprise for people to hear that he performs his role better than Sharman Joshi did in the original. Going in the one I had the most doubts over was Srikanth but he has also delivered in spades. He shines especially towards the end in the scene where he opens up to have a talk with his father. The chemistry between Vijay, Jiiva, and Srikanth is also a big part of what makes the film fun to watch.

The biggest disappointment comes from the senior most member of the cast. Sathyaraj is someone who I consider to be one of my all-time favorite actors and he has a unique style that is all his own. That he chooses to channel Boman Irani’s over-the-top idiosyncrasies is the biggest letdown in the acting department. He certainly delivers a credible performance and shows his strengths when required to emote towards the end. But that should come as no surprise given he is an actor of tremendous skill. The role was ripe for him to deliver his unique touch but maybe it was the director’s decision to not change anything in the remake. Sathyan who has a tendency to overact at times tones it down while Ileana is all about eye-candy.

After the debacle that was 7aum Arivu, Harris Jayaraj redeems himself with a very strong soundtrack aided by the picturization which definitely has Shankar’s trademark touches. Asku Laska… is the best of the lot and has already become a huge hit with its melodious tune and lyrics from multiple languages. The picturization on Vijay and Ileana starts off in subdued manner before picking up with the final backdrop of a painted train reminding us what Shankar is all about. All Is Well… takes the punch line from the original and wraps it in an instantly hummable tune with some great lyrics to match. Irukaanaa… feels like one of those traditional recycled Harris tunes which he provides in every soundtrack but has actually grown on me after the film. How much of that has to do with the picturization set against the backdrop of another extravagant Shankar set (though this one reminded me of the set used in the Vaaji Vaaji… song from Sivaji) focusing on Ileana’s famous size-zero figure with choreography from Farah Khan channeling Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie, I cannot say. En Frienda Pola… is another strong tune singing Pari’s praises while the pathos filled Nalla Nanban… serves its purpose in the film.

Every other technical aspect from Manoj Paramahamsa’s cinematography which shines in the scenes in Ooty and Dhanushkoti to Anthony’s editing comes together in a perfect manner as one would expect from a Shankar film. In fact, there are very little negatives that one could say about Nanban. The kind of low-brow comedy and overt sentimentality featured in this film may not be everyone’s cup of tea but that is hardly a knock on the film. The truth is that Nanban is a film that can be enjoyed by most anyone and would make for a perfect outing for the festive season.

P.S: If it ever came to a situation where I had to choose between 3 Idiots and Nanban, I would go for the latter solely because of it being in my mother tongue. In reality, you could watch either and be equally entertained.