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'Navarasa' review: Falling like ninepins

A starry assemblage of directing and acting talent adds up to less than the sum of its parts in this uneven anthology

Prasanna and (right) Arvind Swami in 'Navarasa: Project Agni'
Prasanna and (right) Arvind Swami in 'Navarasa: Project Agni'

Nine emotions, nine filmmakers, nine different unconnected stories and you have an expansive anthology showcasing some of the best Tamil talent. This does not, however, translate into the best showcase of Tamil writing, acting or content.

Expectations are high, considering the anthology is presented by Mani Ratnam and carries heavy-hitting acting talent such as Revathi, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Arvind Swami, Vijay Sethupathi, Siddharth and Suriya.

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Each episode explores one of the nine rasas, intended to stir that emotion in the audience. The only feeling most of these episodes evoke is of ennui.

The cinematography, music and production design stand out across the episodes, with work by Santosh Sivan, PC Sreeram and Sujith Sarang behind the camera giving depth to the frame even when the stories lack them and composers including A R Rahman, Vishal Bhardwaj and Karthik enhancing the assigned emotion.

Conspicuously, all the directors are male and none of the stories give the female character great agency. Perhaps this why Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri, which explores karuna/compassion, the first of the rasas, stands out the most. It uses split screens and the movements of two characters. Revathi’s performance as a woman facing her husband’s killer is powerful and affecting. With strong support from Sethupathi and Prakash Raj, the film smartly asks questions about the beginning and end of guilt and blame.

Bibhatsa or disgust is the theme for the fourth episode titled Payasam. Set in 1965, director Vasanth’s sepia-tinted short seems to be more about jealousy and resentment than disgust. Predictable but mischievous, the story follows a cantankerous 77 year old who reluctantly shows up to a wedding at his affluent nephew’s house. His plain widowed daughter (Aditi Balan) is a juxtaposition to the glamour and gold adorned by the nephew’s family. A simplistic film, which has moments thanks to Delhi Ganesh’s turn as the uncle.

Writer-director Karthik Subbaraj approaches peace, or shanthih, in a fable-like story set on the Sri Lankan rebel front. Bobby Simha, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Sananth and Tharun feature in a story that puts saving lives above self.

In the seventh episode, titled Inmai, director Rathindran R. Prasad interprets bhaya or fear. The story begins in a upscale home in present day Puducherry. Vishal Bhardwaj’s music dials up the tension as Farooq arrives at the home of a lone woman. He keeps asking for her signature but she is in a playful mood, which turns to horror. Djinns, avarice and fear permeate this 32-minute film in which Parvathy Thiruvothu and Siddharth run through a gamut of feelings.

At ninth position is sringara or love: Gautam Vasudev Menon directs Tugging At My Guitar Strings. Karthik’s music and Suriya’s rendition of a songwriter-singer compensate for the styleless dialogue and the overly coquettish act by Prayaga Martin.

Laughter, wonder, anger and courage—the rest of the navarasas—merely compound the feeling that some of the scripts were hastily cobbled together with cursorily selected trivia from Wikipedia. The stories are loose, the acting equally spotty and ploughing through all nine episodes is effortful.

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