Neethaane En Ponvasantham - An Introspection

P.S.: This post plainly dissects into many aspects of the film mentioned in the title. Don’t read it if you haven’t watched the film yet.

In my experience of watching films, I’ve realized that I am a sucker for climaxes. Most of you will agree that the climax can elevate a bad or mediocre film and bring down a good or even great film. I’ve also realized how I feel about a film is directly dependent on the kind of emotions the climax evokes in me. This is why I’ve made it a point of revisiting certain films and watching them beginning to end to make sure my initial reactions were right. I applied this theory to Mayakkam Enna last year and felt that there were a few scenes in the early part of the second half that the film could’ve done without, which the extremely powerful climactic sequence made me overlook. The latest film I’ve applied it to is Neethaane En Ponvasantham.

First time I left the theatre, the beautiful climax was probably the only thing on my mind. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside as most romances that end happily inevitably make me feel. I wanted to rewatch the film a second time to make sure the film as a whole worked and that I didn’t give it such high praise owing solely due to how I felt right at the end.

Turns out I wasn’t mistaken. As I wrote in my first time review, “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.” This is a statement I maintain. The film has too many dialogs that evoke strong reactions from me and too many beautiful moments for that not to be the case. But does it hold up to the kind of piece-by-piece dissection Baradwaj Rangan so perfectly did in his review? - “Neethane En Ponvasantham”… The loving daylights.

That is what I wanted to know. That is what made me rack my brain during this viewing. I took the film scene-by-scene and thought about the kind of emotions I felt. Normally I am averse to doing this kind of… analysis, for lack of a better word, but this film just hit too many sweet spots for me to ignore it altogether.

Neethaane En Ponvasantham is a dialogue-heavy film. That means it requires a ton of patience which quite a few people don’t have these days when it comes to watching films. This isn’t a film for those people. It is also a character-driven film. Unless you give in to these characters and feel the emotions they’re feeling, there is not a chance that you’re going to like this film. In my talks with people who disliked this film, this is the response that I got. And that is completely fair.

I didn’t have both those problems. Years of watching European cinema have given me an enormous amount of patience. And I gave in to these characters about 30 minutes into this film. It was probably right after the flashback establishing the relationship between the 8-yr old and the 17-yr old Varun and Nithya, where Ilaiyaraaja’s masterful Vaanam Mella… is used fitfully. The playful innocence of the lyrics and Raja’s music did have a part to play in that. But so did the kind of relationship portrayed during these two sequences. Whether it is the innocent little girl saying I will never speak to Varun again or the teenage fight over jealousy, the manner in which Goutham went about establishing this relationship was just right for me.

Once the flashback, and thereby the song, completed, I didn’t have any problem going wherever these characters took me. Thinking about Varun’s adlibbing of Neethaane En Ponvasantham… from Ninaivellam Nithya or Nithya’s speech about forgiving and forgetting right at the beginning of the film in retrospect with the flashback just made that feeling a lot stronger.

Interestingly enough, Goutham’s previous feature Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, to which this beautiful film has been forced into comparison - and incorrectly, may I add, since they’re completely different in the way they go about things - did just the opposite for me. I went through the entire film without ever giving in to the characters. Everybody around me were so invested in them whereas I felt I was being kept at an arm’s distance from both of them. I also have to point out that love at first sight has never worked for me. VTV is built on Karthik falling head over heels in love for Jessie right from that first sighting and everything that happens right after is because of that. That is the main reason why I took a strong disliking to VTV as opposed to NEP where there is a more substantial foundation to Varun and Nithya’s love.

I’ve also been reading that NEP is misogynistic. I think this is a flawed observation. I was specifically trying to observe whether this was the case and couldn’t spot any chauvinism on the director’s part. The film places equal blame on Varun and Nithya for the failings in their relationship. Towards the end, Nithya mentions, “You could’ve mentioned your family problems to me…,” to which he responds, “Boys do stupid things.” She adds, “Ego had a part in it as well.” That one exchange is a solid example of what I mean.

Almost every exchange, every fight, and every argument between them follows the same pattern. There’s blame game from both sides. And if the first half has Nithya letting go of things personal to her and making time for Varun, the second half has the opposite where Varun almost loses his job trying to win Nithya back. Even the climax - which even people who’ve given positive reviews have observed as being partial to Varun - has Nithya apologizing not for her role in their breakups but for not resolving their fights sooner with a simple hug and lip lock, both of which have almost always done the trick for us men.

If there is one prickly point in all of this, it is Pengal Yendral… which features extremely misogynistic lyrics and has no right being in this film. It is extremely one-sided and I am still trying to think of why Goutham saw it fit to include the song in his film which, apart from that one misstep, is so impartial in its observations of the travails of loving someone. Of course, this is a larger issue with Evan Di Unna Pethan… from Vaanam and Why This Kolaveri… from 3 also being guilty of this kind of chauvinism. I guess it is the flavour of the season right now and from the number of cheers that single song elicited from the male section of the audience, I can almost imagine Goutham’s reasoning.

I enjoyed this second-time viewing for a number of other reasons as well. It answered a lot of questions I had after the first time, and it allowed me to look at a number of other scenes from a different perspective.

For example, I questioned Varun’s decision to get married on my first viewing. This is answered in the film itself where Varun says, “I thought you would never come back for me. That is why I made the decision to get married.”, in his monologue in Nithya’s room. That is pretty much self-explanatory and understandable from his point of view.

Another scene I loved was Nithya’s arrival at Varun’s reception when she climbs up the dais to congratulate Varun. I observed Varun’s father Krishnan’s reactions during this scene. He never took his eye off his son. He observed Varun’s staggered reactions to Nithya’s presence, his apparent rejection of her handshake because that would’ve evoked a flood of emotions from him, and his longing look as Nithya stepped down from the dais. This explains why Krishnan stays awake into the night waiting for Varun’s return from his trip down memory lane and why he asks his son to be a man and make the right call. A great example of a minor scene having a major part to play in the proceedings.

And those aren’t the only two examples I have. In fact, there are an innumerable number of scenes like the above which make sense on a second viewing or on further reflection from the viewer. That is what leads me to say this is masterful filmmaking from Goutham Menon, a filmmaker I’ve been extremely critical of in the past for his writing which has sometimes been laugh-inducing for all the wrong reasons and for being very inconsistent in terms of the tone and structure of his efforts, VTV excluded. But my experiences with this film have led me to believe this is his finest film yet.

Goutham shares writing credits with one Reshma Ghatala for NEP, and it’ll be interesting to know exactly how those credits have been shared. Based on my past GVM experiences, I was extremely surprised by the quality of writing in this film. I didn’t notice one dialogue out of place, besides the few slips into English I noted in my first review, which I was able to overlook during this viewing. If Reshma’s presence has brought Goutham back down to Earth, then it is a welcome one. And it is a partnership one hopes will continue into his future films.

As a director, Goutham has always been at his finest. His understanding of his characters and the kind of scenes to build with them have been evident from his sophomore effort Kakka Kakka, which has the distinction of being “the film” that reignited my love for cinema in my teens. Even in his middling effort Pachaikkili Muthucharam, there were some beautiful, touching moments between Sarathkumar and Andrea before the film fell prey to the former’s ironman image.

It is no wonder then that Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya has a huge following because it was his finest film up to that point. In terms of tone and presentation, it was extremely consistent and the writing wasn’t very far off. My personal preference for a certain kind of romance notwithstanding, I’ve always maintained that it is a well-made film, just not my kind. Neethaane En Ponvasantham is my kind of film and it is an extremely well-made one at that, so little wonder that I am considering it to be Goutham’s finest film, and one that I already consider a classic staple for home-viewing some time into the future.

In all that praise for the film’s other brilliant aspects, I’d be remiss not to mention the most important one of them all – The Maestro’s Music. Before anything, I’d like to point out I am a huge Ilaiyaraaja nut. I’ve anticipated even some of his middling efforts with great enthusiasm – yes, I am looking at you Dhoni, so it is little wonder that I was as excited as I’ve been for the music of a mainstream Tamil film in a long time. But even I couldn’t have envisioned the kind of brilliance Raja can conjure up in what must definitely be his twilight years. Listening to the standalone album was great in and of itself and, as Milliblog so aptly pointed in his 300-word review, “…every Raja fan’s wet dream.”

But taking the songs in context of the film elevates them to another plane altogether. I’ve already spoken about Vaanam Mella… and Pengal Yendral… which I’d sooner forget, but the other four have been used perfectly and have lyrics that remind us of the golden days of cinema where the music wasn’t just about providing bathroom breaks and making money but actually served the purpose of enhancing the film and serving as replacements for dialogues in the moments that they appear in. In that sense, NEP’s music does all that and more.

Muthal Murai… appears almost out of thin air and gives the viewer a sudden jolt but you can make sense of it when considering that Nithya would’ve experienced a similar jolt in that scene. The lyrics capture her emotions more than words probably would have. Kaatrai Konjam… is perfectly fitting as Varun imagines re-uniting with his love after spending 3 years apart. This is the kind of song I was talking about when I said that the lyrics actually serve the purpose of capturing the singer’s emotions. Of Ennodu Vaa Vaa…, Baradwaj Rangan had this to say, “Given Varun’s sensitivity and given that Nithya, upon seeing him again, has crumbled to pieces, how does this tomfoolery fit in?”, which is a perfectly valid point. To counter that, I’d argue that the entire sequence is built on Varun’s tomfoolery to win Nithya back. I myself found it sweet and charming which is probably what the Manappad sequence was intended to be in the first place.

Sattru Munbu… has been considered one of the numbers of the album and its appearance towards the end does all but certify the Maestro’s genius. Its usage in the background, Na. Muthukumar’s quite simply outstanding lyrics and the kind of emotions it evokes during the entire sequence of scenes from Nithya’s arrival at the reception to the completion of their trip down memory lane… everything about the song and its placement is perfect. And it is a brilliant example of the kind of magical moments Tamil cinema can offer when songs aren’t considered to be second-class citizens.

Having gushed so much about the film, it is only fair to point out that Neethaane En Ponvasantham is not without its flaws. I’ve already mentioned my major gripe which is Pengal Yendral… but the cinematography is quite average which is shocking given how technically proficient Goutham’s previous efforts have been. But the measure of a film’s quality is not in its perfection. If all great films have to be flawless, then we’d have an extremely small sample to work with. As far as I am concerned, NEP’s imperfections in no way reduce its lustre as one of the foremost romances of the modern era, and one I know will stand the test of time in my own personal collection. I cannot ask of anything more from a film.

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