Directed by: Bharat Bala || Produced by: Venu Ravichandran
Screenplay by: Bharat Bala, Joe D’Cruz, Sriram Rajan || Starring: Dhanush, Parvathi Menon, Appukutty, Uma Riyaz Khan, Salim Kumar, Vinayakan, Jagan, Imman Annachi, Ankur Vikal
Music by: A. R. Rahman || Cinematography: Marc Koninckx || Edited by: Vivek Harshan || Country: India || Language: Tamil
Running Time: 150 minutes
Indian cinema as a whole has long been overshadowed by its major industrial center that is the Bombay (now Mumbai)-based Hindi film industry, colloquially known as Bollywood. Though India is nowhere near as large, geographically, as the United States, its population dwarfs that of every other country in the world, save China (and not for much longer, if population growth predictions hold), and it sports one of the most ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse populations on earth. As such, its national film stable constitutes far more than “just” Bollywood (or phenom auteurs like Satyajit Ray), with over a dozen smaller industries loosely representing multiple ethnic groups and languages across the massive nation.
The bad part of this equation is that many quality films made outside the Hindi industrial studio systems often get overlooked due to the cultural force that is Bollywood’s massive influence on its country’s (as well as most of South Asia’s) popular movies and music. If you look up any “Best of” lists of popular South Asian films throughout history, they’re always dominated by Bollywood features, and one wonders if that is artistically accurate. In general, it’s hard for smaller non-Bollywood films to compete with the bigger budgeted, better marketed, and more widely distributed Hindi blockbusters the same way American indie films have a hard time competing with the viewership of major Hollywood blockbusters. Southern Indian film industries, consisting of films from the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam regions and collectively referred to as South Indian Cinema, are an oft-cited alternative.
Maryan, a Tamil film, is well cast and features believable acting in comparison to most overacted, live-action melodramas starring Shah Rukh Khan, but many of the same problems that hound Bollywood’s most beloved classics are still present, albeit in dirtier, lower-budget form. Maryan’s biggest problem is its clumsy script, full of subplots and nonsensical character moments that never pay off. The first section of the story deals with the handsome titular protagonist (Dhanush, real name = Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja) falling in love with his attractive female co-lead (Parvathi Menon), and almost none of their romance is believable. Dhanush is a handsome guy, but otherwise acts like an abusive asshole, physically assaulting Menon multiple times. There are brief encounters with the local bully/bad guy (Vinayakan), but aside from one important plot-point, he doesn’t do much in the story and his scenes are glorified filler.
Once the primary story arc begins, Dhanush is sent to work in Sudan where he later gets kidnapped (the script is allegedly based on a true story), and things get more interesting. Hostage scenes always involve tension, and it’s more emotionally engaging to watch Dhanush communicate his final goodbyes to his beloved while at gunpoint than to watch them awkwardly fall in love. As is typical with Indian films, all the non-Indians in the story, including Dhanush’s African kidnappers, are portrayed as comical caricatures that distract from the seriousness of the narrative, but thankfully the focus remains on Dhanush’s plight and not the mannerisms of his assailants.
What holds Maryan together for the remainder of its story are countless gorgeous shots of Dhanush scaling desert dunes and flashback sequences of him conquering the Indian ocean on his fishing trips. For a film so cheaply financed, Maryan looks beautiful, and its commitment to outdoor location-photography in lieu of indoor studio sets is commendable. The movie has that gritty, earthy feel characteristic of independent film productions the world over, distinct from the airbrushed, whitewashed visual style of its Bollywood brethren.
The film briefly flirts with the idea of including song numbers, but quickly recants once the dance sequences go on for more than two minutes or so. It’s too bad given that the filmmakers had A. R. Rahman at the helm of their soundtrack, and could’ve orchestrated additional choreography with the dazzling outdoor scenery.
Altogether, Maryan makes some healthy deviations from Bollywood formula, but still suffers from most of the same problems and feels altogether similar to the blockbuster behemoths from which it’s trying to distance itself. It’s a well directed, well acted feature that struggles to break the confines of its mediocre writing and romantic cliches, and unfortunately doesn’t rise much to the occasion. It’s poorly paced and slow, yet its colorful, indie-style cinematography does much to save it from mediocrity. In one sense, Maryan remain a fun alternative to the Hindi blockbusters that have constituted the vast majority of my exposure to Indian cinema, but at the end of the day, it’s not that great of a film nor is it really that different.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Maryan is easy on the eyes, like its two leads, and it makes great use of its fantastic outdoor shooting locations. The music is well written and the kidnapping plot has some tension to it.
— However… Dhanush and Menon don’t have much chemistry. The former is too unlikable and the latter way too empty-headed to keep our interest for the first hour of the film. The supporting cast isn’t too much to write home about either, and the depictions of non-Indians are distracting. The dance-numbers are not fleshed out (either show them or don’t) and the film is way too long for its simple story.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? So there’s the brown Indian people I was looking for (they can’t be found in Bollywood)! No more #Fairandlovely, eh? I knew they were around here, somewhere… #Darkisbeautiful