That Radhakrishnan Parthiban is undoubtedly one of the most daring filmmakers in Tamil Cinema is probably the understatement of the year. He has, over time, carved out a space that is all his. The stories that he chooses to tell and the formats he tries to explore, are all so off the beaten path that you could say that every film of his could be titled Pudhiya Paadhai! And Iravin Nizhal is arguably the most daring of all his attempts till date. The film is a technical marvel. That it is the world’s first non-linear, single shot film is something that we have been educated on in the promotions. But the making video that is played before the film gives us the full picture of the extraordinary challenges and barriers that Parthiban and his team had to overcome to make this dream a reality. The vision, the planning, the execution, the frustrations, and the ecstasy all make for such compelling viewing that the actual feature film that follows, has to compete with the making video for entertainment and engagement.
Right from his Pudhiya Paadhai days, Parthiban has, in an unflinching manner, managed to dissect and present characters who struggle to come out of the shadows of a sordid childhood. With his wonderful Oththa Seruppu Size 7, which I regard as his best directorial work till date, another theme that he had explored with much depth was the deleterious impact of money, or lack thereof, on relationships. One of the reasons why Oththa Seruppu worked remarkably well was because with the film’s entire focus on a single character, the introspections, reflections and revelations were examined in a superbly perceptive and focused manner. Iravin Nizhal combines these themes and their impact on a man’s life. It is an ambitious film not just in terms of the conceit of the single shot and the non-linear narration. It is also a daring experiment in story telling because it trusts the viewer to watch with rapt attention as the character revisits several pieces of the rather unsolvable puzzle that his life has turned out to be.
If the investigation setup of Oththa Seruppu gave Parthiban the perfect platform for the solo act, a character holding a figurative mirror to his conscience and revisiting the highs and lows of his life is a perfect setup for the single shot narrative. Since we are following a character’s mental journey, not a physical one, we accept the segues from one setting to another without questioning the logistical feasibility. But the same cannot be said about the emotional impact. Parthiban follows what Baradwaj Rangan coined as the “vignette” style (when he spoke to Mani Ratnam about Iruvar). We get a whiff of several phases of his life. On the one hand, given the depressingly dark territories that the story goes into, the vignettes work well in making the sequences palatable. On the other hand, certain aspects like the impact of a child on the character transformation of a parent don’t get their due time on screen.
The rough edges of this film are smoothed over by Parthiban’s powerful dialogues. Whenever the single shot format limits the scope for performances, the dialogues more than ably compensate. Be it his trademark puns (there are a couple of hilarious but unprintable ones!) or certain sharp lines like “naan manushana porandhu rendu varsham than aachu” in reference to his daughter, the dialogues are terrific. And as a Parthiban fan, the couple of subtle references to his earlier work like the Rajabadhar death scene (happening in 1989 in this film’s timeline, the same year that Pudhiya Paadhai released) are thoroughly enjoyable. And there are some nifty touches like the Shalini poster from Amarkallam in the background when the film’s timeline shifts to 1999.
AR Rahman’s musical score, especially “Paapam Seiyyadhiru”, contributes to the film’s dramatic appeal in a magnificent manner. The score helps us experience the inevitable tragedy of the central character in an almost poetic manner, despite the harshness of the visuals that unfold on screen. Cinematographer Arthur Wilson and production designer RK Vijay Murugan are the two other pillars that hold Parthiban’s vision aloft. The latter has created some truly ingenious set pieces – some of the transitions from one set to another are astonishing, especially the beach front – while the former finds the unlikeliest of angles to weave his camera in and out of. Wilson’s work is especially splendid in the flashback sequences involving the kid. The child goes through some ghastly experiences but Wilson’s camera angles and lighting are just perfect in showing us some of the unspeakable hardships while never feeling exploitative.
Parthiban’s efforts for Iravin Nizhal are so painstaking that it almost feels unfair to nitpick. But even as we critically view the film, it is impossible to not acknowledge the palpable impact that the film’s narrative has on us, even within the restrictions of the format. Future filmmakers might analyze Iravin Nizhal and make careful choices about the stories that would fit most optimally into this format. But the seeds of that are undoubtedly sown by Parthiban. (To paraphrase Thevar Magan Sivaji, “Aana vedhai…Parthiban poattadhu!”) And for proving his mettle as an intrepid experimenter, let us collectively throw as much spotlight on this film as possible so that he feels motivated to keep creating new paths for us to experience.