Aayirathil Oruvan starts off by depicting an archeological expedition to find the remains of a lost Chola settlement somewhere off the coast of Vietnam. As it happens, our explorers find not ruins, but a living Chola civilization, completely cut off from society for many centuries.
It is here that Selvaraghavan makes an inspired choice. Instead of depicting the sort of sanitized society in period costume that most filmmakers would opt for, he imagines a group not far removed from savages. Centuries of isolation have gnawed away at their civility. Lord of the Flies, anyone?
Underscoring this savagery is a palpable sense of yearning. These people have been waiting for generations for a sign that they could return home.
The dialogue in this segment is spoken in what seems like an archaic dialect. How faithful the language is to the period, I am not sure. But in terms of evoking a lost world, it works beautifully. I even loved the ending, which is more open-ended than most people would like.
Some of the performances are fantastic. Karthi is in sublime form, Reema Sen is a revelation and Parthiban taps into his innate kookiness in full measure. Andrea Jeremiah is barely adequate, but doesn’t have much to do, and doesn’t really bring the movie down.
The film is not without its problems. The first half, which aspires to be in the same league as the Indiana Jones franchise, is imagined better than it is shot. The second half has all kinds of plausibility issues. For instance, characters who seem to have supernatural powers don’t use it when they are most required. Some scenes, especially the gory ones, go on for too long — did the man not use an editor at all?
But you know what? Despite its flaws, I loved the movie. There is a sequence towards the end when a bunch of swordfighters come up against a troop of mercenaries with automatic rifles and grenades. We all know the cliche about knives and gunfights. But it doesn’t stop us from cheering on this group of warriors making their last stand. Maybe Selvaraghavan is trying to tell us something there.
Update: I just got around to reading Baradwaj Rangan’s review and found that he echoed much of the same sentiments, except he did much better, as usual. An excerpt:
Loosely put, if the three Indiana Jones installments were filtered through a cracked prism of Tamil history, Aayirathil Oruvan would be the lysergic rainbow that bloomed forth. The creepy-crawly snake-infested attack from Raiders of the Lost Ark is reinforced with the savage, cave-dwelling cult from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and routed through the graph of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where an archeologist-father goes missing, causing the archeologist-child to embark on an expedition retracing his steps. With this in mind, we expect a generic action-adventure ride with a splash of the supernatural, and that is the tone dictated by the early events. We think that the team (comprising Karthi, Andrea, Reema Sen and an unwashed truckload of mercenaries) will dodge the usual traps for three-quarters of the film, until they reach the destination, in the final quarter, where the hitherto mysterious knots will begin to unravel. We think this because that’s how movies of this stripe have conditioned us to think – rather, that’s how these films have conditioned us to not think, and to simply sit back and strap up for the ride.
The joke of the film, however, is that this entire stretch is nothing but buildup to a second-half-long showdown. Once these obstacles are navigated, the film mutates into a beast that could scarcely be imagined from the chromosomal constituents of the first half – which is bad news if you’re a creature of cold logic, but a thrilling turn of events if you’re willing to surrender to heavy-lidded imagery on the threshold of a fever-dream. (The trippy sensation is exaggerated by spectacularly nightmarish soot-and-flame cinematography and slo-mo editing rhythms with ceaseless fades-to-black.) The generic machinery of the first half grinds to a groaning stop, and a visceral fog descends over the proceedings. The last obstacle faced by the team results in their becoming possessed by spirits, and as if taking a cue from its characters, thenceforth, the film itself becomes possessed. This is where the real story begins, one that unceremoniously yanks you back from sit-back-and-relax blockbuster-mode and instructs you to focus with all your (supernatural) powers.