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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema, South Indian Cinema

‘Doctor’ (2021) & ‘Etharkkum Thunindhavan’ (2022): More Preaching, Less Cheering

Directed by: Nelson Dilipkumar [1], Pandiraj [2] || Produced by: Kotapadi J. Rajesh, Sivakarthikeyan [1], Kalanithi Maran [2]

Screenplay by: Nelson Dilipkumar [1], Pandiraj [2] || Starring: Sivakarthikeyan, Yogi Babu [1], Saravanan Sivakumar [2], Priyanka Arul Mohan, Vinay Rai [1, 2]

Music by: Anirudh Ravichander [1], Immanuel Vasanth Dinakaran [2] || Cinematography: Vijay Kartik Kannan [1], R. Rathnavelu [2] || Edited by: R. Nirmal [1], Livingston Antony Ruben [2] || Country: India || Language: Tamil

Running Time: 150-151 minutes || 1 = Doctor, 2 = Etharkkum Thunindhavan

Upon watching Nelson Dilipkumar’s Doctor and Pandiraj’s Etharkkum Thuindhavan, I noted the continuation of a trend amongst mainstream Indian crowdpeasers I first noticed with the Hindi feature, Simmba (2019): On-the-nose preaching with respect to sexual violence against women in South Asia. Heavy-handed storytelling is not at all a novel concept in popular cinema — watch a random sample of Hollywood, Bollywood, or mainland Chinese productions from the past 10 years and you’ll see plenty of filmmakers telling rather than showing you their film’s message — but it’s hard to miss the rise of supposed pro-women, anti-sexist messages in contemporary Indian blockbusters across the country’s various film industries. What’s often missing from these politically minded mainstream films is the faintest self-awareness that maybe, just maybe, slow-motion action sequences, colorful, bubblegum pop music videos, and macho, male-driven scripts perhaps aren’t the best cinematic vehicles through which to explore those aforementioned types of messages.

Top: I find this image a representative summary of Doctor — an unfunny comedian (Yogi Babu, left) and a lead actor with bizarre, inexplicable hair and makeup (Sivakarthikeyan) making weird faces. Bottom: Vinay Rai (center left) threatens to execute Zaara Vineet (center) later in the film.

Both of today’s movies of interest are primarily action thrillers with sugary outer coatings of sociopolitical commentary; Doctor, one of numerous 2020-2022 Indian titles delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, details the elaborate, hairbrained scheme of an Indian military physician (Sivakarthikeyan), his fiancé (Priyanka Arul Mohan), and his prospective in-laws to rescue the latter’s niece (Zaara Vineet) imprisoned on a secret island compound from a mustache-twirling sex trafficker (Vinay Rai). Etharkkum Thuindhavan is of similar design, whereby a lawyer-turned-vigilante protagonist (Saravanan Sivakumar, also known as Suriya) falls in love with a local village beauty (Priyanka Arul Mohan), who along with her friends, is targeted by a mustache-twirling sex trafficker (Vinay Rai) in charge of a nonconsensual pornography racket. Notice any patterns yet?

What I’ll say in defense of Doctor is that its ensemble cast is well used (I like how an entire family embarks on this ludicrous quest instead of just the lone invincible hero cliché), its inappropriate whimsical dance numbers are limited to a single mid-credits sequence (“Chellammu,” though plenty other singles feature as background score), and Sivakarthikeyan, though his performance is terrible, at least tries for a different type of character than most stock South Indian heroes. The negatives, meanwhile, include its poorly paced, convoluted plot, unnecessary and unfunny comic relief side-characters (e.g. Yogi Babu; a staple of mainstream Indian cinema), and Sivakarthikeyan’s painful attempts at deadpan humor. The latter is perhaps the most baffling aspect of Doctor, whereby our hero talks in monotone and almost never changes expression throughout the entire film. It’s not effective comedy, it’s not endearing, and it adds nothing to the character’s arc or the greater story about rescuing underage girls from sexual slavery.

One of the first major South Indian productions filmed toward the end of the coronavirus’ peak (around February 2021) that more or less follows in Doctor’s footsteps is Pandiraj’s latest high-concept film, Etharkkum Thuindhavan (“Daredevil for Anything” as a loose translation; henceforth, ET). Though ET lacks the tone-deaf, awful humor and convoluted storylines of a Doctor, it shares many irritating attributes, namely over-the-top action sequences that clash with its awkward social commentary, unnecessary musical numbers shoehorned into the story, endless montage sequences, and a longwinded running time (~150 minutes). The film is worse in certain ways relative to Doctor in that it preaches more than it develops its story a la Rang de Basanti (2008). At numerous points, the director pauses bland, by-the-book South Indian action sequences (you know, with the endless slow-motion, lazy choreography, ineffective villainous henchmen, a plethora of dust and particle FX, etc.) as well as expository scenes to insert laughable monologues — often by star Suriya, though sometimes by female lead Mohan — about how society mistreats its women or how unfair the Double Standard is.

All I can compliment about ET is its fun romantic subplot between Suriya and Mohan. Unlike Bollywood, most popular South Indian films don’t emphasize romantic subplots and few are built entirely around love stories; ET, however, puts considerable effort into Suriya’s courtship of Mohan and even builds a creative set-piece whereby the former covertly “weds” the latter in public. Whenever the film transitions to its wannabe intellectual breakdown of pornography and the victimization of South Asian women, however, — the primary theme of the story — the movie lays down and dies.

Left: ET’s song numbers have decent production values, but all are superfluous. Right: Similar things can be said of ET’s action scenes, all of which have zero tension or excitement.

Perhaps the biggest problem with both Doctor and Etharkkum Thunindhavan is how predictable they are despite their earnest, obvious attempts to try something different from the typical South Indian genre film. Regardless of Sivakarthikeyan’s weak hand as a stoic, mild-mannered antihero or Pandiraj’s feeble action-feminist commentary, their stories lack any tension or sense of narrative unpredictability. I don’t ask for every other blockbuster to reinvent the filmmaking wheel, but holy shit do these movies not seem to realize how bland and formulaic their directorial styles are. There’s little offensive about either film other than my standard complaints about most mediocre to bad South Indian crowdpleasers (e.g. poor comic relief and a nonsensical plot in Doctor; unnecessary musical numbers and tiresome slow-motion action scenes in ET; preachy dialogue in both, etc.). Where I get irritated with films like these two — or films like Simmba or Rang de Basanti, as Hindi examples — is how smart and edgy their filmmakers seem to think they are despite how conventional their movies feel.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I’ve made it well known on this site how much I detest filmmaker preaching, manipulative dialogue, and political messaging at the expense of good filmic storytelling, and two further examples I can lay on that crap heap are 2021’s Doctor and 2022’s Etharkkum Thunindhavan. How these two movies meld their stories’ self-serious, self-righteous political messages with their generic, melodramatic direction is, as I’ve said before, a mixture of oil and water.

However… I give both films credit for at least attempting the vaguest semblance of style with Sivakarthikeyan’s oddball performance in Doctor and the halfway cute relationship between Saravanan Sivakumar and Priyanka Mohan in Etharkkum Thunindhavan.


? So, when does S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR (2022) release on Netflix? Please tell me it’ll be in its native Telugu and not in some comical dub.

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