'Vaathi is not a badly made film. It is exactly what it appears to be — a melodrama that will manipulate its way into your heart, stay there for five seconds and then disappear forever,' writes OTTplay's critic Aditya Shrikrishna.
Last Updated: 01.22 PM, Feb 17, 2023
IT'S QUITE SURREAL to see the credits of production and distribution company 7 Screen Studios at the beginning of Venky Atluri’s Vaathi accompanied by the background score from Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master. A word or a phrase or even a line from a song entering the Tamil cinema lexicon and overstaying its welcome is as regular as a big star’s Pongal or Deepavali release. Though vathiyar (teacher) belongs forever to MG Ramachandran, it renewed its status with Master’s Vijay playing the eponymous, shortened vaathi. The film’s big success made sure that the word will continue to possess a certain cachet for quite some time. And here we are just two years after Master with a Dhanush film titled Vaathi and the actor too, like Vijay, playing a teacher.
Dhanush’s Vaathi, written and directed by Venky Atluri mostly in Telugu with only the Tamil actors speaking their lines in the language, is a more straightforward film compared to Lokesh Kanagaraj’s monster hit. The film begins with a little myth making and the ideas are good. A pornography collection locked up in a decrepit, obsolete video store turns out to be a treasure trove of lectures by a young, enterprising teacher caught on video more than twenty-two years ago. It’s not entirely convincing why a high school student who sat down to watch porn would suddenly take out a notebook and solve his homework using the lecture on the VHS tape but it’s strangely alluring to see the hero introduced in this manner. Is the teacher so good that nobody can look away?
The man is Balamurugan (Dhanush), a government school teacher who was sent to fail at his job by his boss, the head honcho of Thirupathi schools and coaching centres — played by Samuthirakani — who has taken control of government schools using some strange mix of arm twisting and political manoeuvring. And then when we go back to the late ‘90s and meet him in the flesh, Atluri inserts a fight scene. When you’ve already created a legendary figure, what’s this action scene for? Vaathi cannot resist. This seems to have dawned on Samuthirakani who for the first time looks like he’d rather be doing something else than playing this fangless villain who can turn governments upside down but cannot stop a lowly, scrawny-looking teacher.
This is where Vaathi repeatedly missteps. It has these ideas that are good on paper, but the filmmaking is absent, and the good scenes are held a minute or two too long with the counterintuitive compulsion to serve the star status of Dhanush. The film mostly stays true to its genre — a mellow melodrama that tugs at your heartstrings, about a professor who takes a whole school under his wing and instils a love for school and education in a mostly disinterested but diverse set of students.
For all the fault lines in this village, the people remain easy to convince. One lecture on caste and the students and families forget thousands of years of oppressive behaviour. One town hall meeting (citation: Abdul Kalam) and the wildly reluctant parents are ready to send their children to school. Atluri gathers every emotion in the sponge made of this town, its people and the students, and at regular intervals keeps it raining upon us to some effect.
It works from time to time. Another great idea of a battered Balamurugan walking on parched, burning ground with no slippers goes on too long for us to stay with its defining sentiment. There are three fight sequences in the film, each one of them unnecessary. The elders of this village too come across as the most gullible lot, so much that even the evil president has a change of heart after just a few words from his daughter. If only the world’s problems were this simple to solve and films were this easy to make.
Talking of easy, it’s a cakewalk for Dhanush. He simply coasts along in a role that doesn’t demand much of him. He also looks disinterested and uninvolved in a film where even the few comedy bits are plagiarised and are at least two decades stale. The film is also not inclined to show why Vaathi is a good teacher. What makes him tick with his students? These need not be high concept or involve actual mathematics, but the film badly needed at least one scene displaying its hero’s one superpower.
Vaathi is not a badly made film, it is exactly what it appears to be — a melodrama that will manipulate its way into your heart, stay there for five seconds and then disappear forever. A few years later, we may not recall a single scene from this film because there are other filmmakers doing greater things with this material and in this genre.