After many years of watching cinema, I finally had a brilliant epiphany today: “Not all people watch the same film.”. I know, genius, right? This is a thought that had been on the back of my mind for quite some time, but one that I hadn’t really given much thought to until today. This is because, in the past, most of my “differing opinions” have come when I’ve not appreciated a film others have, which hasn’t been much of an issue. I usually rationalized my opinion in some way and dismissed other people’s. But today I had the complete opposite experience. I watched a film that has had mixed/positive reviews from critics. Most people I know had already asked me to not watch the film. To add to all that, I myself wasn’t desperate to catch this film. But I did and, to my complete surprise, it struck a chord with me.

And that is when I had the aforementioned epiphany. Because when I realized my opinion was positive compared to the general public, it made me think about a film differently as opposed to when it is of the negative kind. I was not as dismissive of opinions as I might usually be. I was forced to introspect on what it is that made me react so positively while most others have had polar opposite reactions. I was forced to do all this because I was not the person dismissing other opinions, but rather it was my opinions that were dismissed by other people because I was the odd man out.

When talking about these two different kinds of reactions, I’d like to bring to your attention two very similar films: Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya and Neethaane En Ponvasantham. Both from Goutham Vasudev Menon. Both films in the same genre, though it can be argued that the latter isn’t a traditional romance. Both had brilliant soundtracks from two geniuses. Both addressed similar relationship issues. Yet, I absolutely loved one and was not as enamoured with the other as the public was.

The former film generated the first kind of reaction for me. It was universally loved with some people even going as far as to consider it a modern masterpiece. I myself thought it was well-made but definitely was not wowed like others. A lot of factors contributed to my feeling that way. I watched it when I was just out of college and was not as appreciative of films as I am right now. I saw it in a B-Theatre with friends who were making loud jokes most of the time. Most importantly, I was at a phase in my life where I generally did not appreciate that film and the kind of insight into love it offered. Since then, I’ve tried to revisit Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya but that first impression has always stuck with me.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2012. I’ve certainly matured a lot from being someone right out of college, having been in the workforce for 3 years. And more importantly, I’ve watched a lot more films in that time and have begun to appreciate the nuances of filmmaking. Today, I went into the theatre expecting nothing. There were only two reasons for me wanting to watch Neethaane En Ponvasantham. It was an Ilaiyaraaja musical (not in the traditional sense of the word) and I don’t think it gets better than that. I wanted to ogle at Samantha for two and a half hours. For a Goutham Menon film, my expectations couldn’t have been any lower. Yet I came out of the theatre feeling like I had watched an enriching experience, one of the best films of 2012, and certainly one of the best films in Goutham’s repertoire.

As I began to think about the film, it finally dawned on me why I’d always been told that films were cognitive experiences. No two people are ever going to watch the same film because no two people are going to have the same reactions to it. While this applies for all films in general, it is even more important when talking about a romance where you have to feel for the film and its characters as much as just watch it. This is why, although all romantic comedies adhere to the same formula, each person has their favourite and some are much more critically acclaimed than others. This is also the reason why, while Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya may have struck a chord with millions of fans, I didn’t enjoy it, and why I absolutely adored Neethaane En Ponvasantham while word-of-mouth has generally been bad.

I could write a glowing review of NEP if I had any inclination of doing so. But I believe the best positive review of the film has already come courtesy of Baradwaj Rangan - “Neethane En Ponvasantham”… The loving daylights. It is an absolutely brilliant dissection of the film addressing its every memorable and not-so-memorable facet. I don’t think it can be bettered and I think it hits on all the right notes as far as talking about the film is concerned. So I’ll just add a few notes of myself and point out where I disagree with that review.

The primary reason why I loved NEP so very much was the characterization of Varun and Nithya. I’ve always sort of hated the word three-dimensional when it comes to addressing film characters; so very cliched. Both these characters felt like real people. As someone who’s not had the love buds strike him (though it’s happened to many of his friends), I cannot relate to them on a personal level, but I still felt like I know these same people from elsewhere. Their conflicts felt real, whether it was the little girl crying at being ignored, or the adolescent fights over talking to other people from the opposite sex, or the grown-up fights about real and present personal issues. Unlike other romances where the characters are kept at an arm’s length, we get close-in to this pair. In that sense, NEP is almost a character study of Varun and Nithya than a traditional romance.

The actual conversations that take place between the lead pair have been written perfectly. They let us know just enough about them so as to make our own decisions on how we feel about them. This surprised me since I’ve always felt that Goutham’s biggest flaw as a film-maker is his script-writing. He thinks and writes like he’s the person doing all the talking, and that poses lots of difficulties for the viewer. For one, you get weird English sentences at the most inopportune moments. Even if you are urban viewer like myself, you are bound to be put off by these sequences. NEP has such moments but they are few and far between, and thankfully relegated to minor scenes. But it would bode well for Goutham if he hires a separate dialogue-writer for his future projects.

One line of thinking where I disagree with the aforementioned review is with regards to song placement. As I’ve already noted, I wanted to see this film for Raja’s music and I wasn’t disappointed. The maestro uses his acclaimed background music sparingly letting the songs themselves serve as background pieces. Raja’s own Vaanam Mella… is used in quite a few places where the pair’s childhood memories are evoked. Muthal Murai… is used during the films highlights as the pair undergo breakup after breakup. Contrary to Mr. Rangan, I actually liked the placement of Kaatrai Konjam… which aptly brought out Varun’s emotions at the prospect of re-uniting with Nithya. Yennodu Vaa Vaa… comes at an odd time but I am willing to forgive that because the song itself is brilliantly orchestrated and charmingly picturized. Saayndhu Saayndhu… is perfectly placed while the less said about Pengal Yendral…, the better. I agree that Sattru Munbu… is used perfectly right at the very end. Ilaiyaraaja’s music added another dimension to the film, and it was brilliant to watch him do a mainstream film after what has been an eternity providing his considerable talent to the art-house section.

The lead actors have done a commendable job. Samantha’s acting chops are much better than the recent crop of Tamil heroines whose beauty is their only asset; but I felt her dubbing artist let her down in many sequences. Jeeva doesn’t have as much to do as Samantha, but he’s already proved himself as a capable enough actor. Technically, the film is sound as is to be expected from a GVM film.

But really two people stand tall in Neethaane En Ponvasantham. Goutham’s strength of writing strong characters and developing a beautiful romance around them is once again on display here. And Ilaiyaraaja once again proves he is from another planet with songs that never come in the way and serve as replacements to dialogues in evoking the same emotions from viewers. Their first-time combination delivers a powerhouse film which is sure to keep you interested in its characters for a few days to come. With time, you will realize that the more introspection you do about this film, the more you will be rewarded by thinking about those little details that have been captured beautifully. As a result, NEP is also one of those rare modern films that is sure to hold up to repeated viewings and, with time, is only going to grow in stature amongst its fans.