Synopsis: Three men try to overcome the problems in their lives not realising the impact their efforts are having on the women in their lives.
Review: Iraivi signifies the transition of Karthik Subbaraj from a whiz kid who delivered visually dazzling works to a major filmmaker who merits serious discussion. If Pizza and Jigarthanda showed his directing flair, Iraivi is a showcase of his writing prowess. That doesn't mean the film is visually a lesser experience. In fact, it is equally impressive. The film is certainly the most interesting 'drama' we have seen in Tamil cinema in a while.
The plot revolves around three men and their attitudes, which impact not only their lives, but also those of the women in their lives. For the filmmaker Arul (SJ Suryah, fantastic), the fact that his film is lying in the cans because of a tussle with his egoistic producer (Vijai Murugan) is reason enough to turn to booze. Michael (Vijay Sethupathi, perfect) is so taken in by Arul and his family that he never thinks twice about his 'devotion' impacting his own life. He doesn't even mind ending a between-the-sheets session for them. Jagan (Bobby Simhaa, effective), a college student and Arul's brother, is perhaps the only male character who sees the two men for what they are. His own father (Radha Ravi) had mistreated his now comatose mother (Vadivukkarasi) when she was in good health. Naturally, he is angry with the way these women are treated and wants things to be better for them. But he doesn't realise that what his actions denote is not empowerment but condescension dressed up as concern.
As for the women in their lives, Arul's wife Yazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee, solid), cannot make up her mind on whether she wants to live with her drunkard husband or move on and remarry. Ponni (Anjali, excellent), Michael's wife, knows that she has ended up with a husband who doesn't really love her, but soldiers on because that is what women are meant to do in our society. On the other hand, Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya, impressive), a widow, is clear that Michael is just a friend with benefits to her, despite him professing his love to her, and has no qualms about using him for her biological urge.
Karthik's writing is novelistic, with each character having their own well-sketched arcs (it is definitely a film that merits repeated viewings). The narration, too, is never rushed and he lets the scenes breathe and gives us time to savour them before moving on to the next one. And he provides terrific bookends for some of the scenes. Sample this: Just before the film's intermission, we get scenes that raise our hopes that these men — and women — could finally be having their break. And we see that notion getting broken down, with a sledgehammer, literally! This happens in the climax as well. The promise of a better future for the characters, struck down (again, literally) in a moment! This kind of symmetry is carried even to the credits as well. The film begins with a disclosure that it is heavily inspired by K Balachander, Balu Mahendra and Sujatha. It ends with a hat tip to Sujatha's Jannal Malar.
There is an autobiographical angle as well, like in Jigarthanda. In that film, it involved a filmmaker forced to compromise and making the most out of it. Here, the sub-plot involving the tussle between Arul and the producer, has echoes of the wrangle between the director and the producer of Jigarthanda. Not surprisingly, we get a line that goes "Nee padaippaali pa. Aathiram kobam ellaam un ezhuthula kaatu".
Visually, too, the film is interesting. Sivakumar Vijayan's camera work is so subtle that we never realise how well they impact us (the presence of rain in many crucial scenes, for example). The usage of visual signifiers like a prison dress falling out of the clothesline to imply the release of a character from prison, or a monkey toy to underscore a character's indecisive nature feel like a nod to KB. The songs (by Santhosh Narayanan) feel unnecessary, but even here, they are used within the context of the film, and Karthik even takes a dig at equating song-less films with art films ("Paadinaale art illa commercial nu sollrangale da").
However, for a film that boasts of thoughtful writing, the twist is a disappointment. One, the reason for a character's decision to bring about the downfall of another feels too convenient. Two, in a film that is visually inventive, the manner in which this revelation is done is cliched. But most importantly, it implies a director not completely trusting his writing and going back to a plot device that worked wonders for him in his previous films. Also, one of the sub-plots, involving the stealing of idols, seems to have been included as a way of injecting some thrills into what is essentially a relationship drama.
But what underwhelms us is that it is through dialogues that we get the empowerment angle — "Poruthukarathukkum sagichukkardhukkum naama enna pombalaya", "Ponna irundha solla koodadhu — ketta vaartha-da ingellaam" (referring to women mentioning the word sex), "Aan nedil, penn kuril" (justifying the capitalisation of men in the film's tagline — Sila woMENgalin kadhai) and so on. And are the film's women really in a better place in the end? Maybe. Maybe not. The female characters, barring Malar (to an extent), come across as women who need the intervention of men in their lives, and do not seem to be capable of possessing an agency of their own. One (Vadivukkarasi) is literally passive, lying comatose in a hospital bed. Even Malar, for all her outspokenness and bold outlook, is shown breaking down when she cuts her relationship with Michael, sending us conflicting signals. Perhaps, Karthik wanted to make a women empowerment film that isn't gung-ho about its message and delivers it rather in a subtle way, but in that case, he has succeeded only to an extent.