Cast: R Madhavan, Shraddha Srinath, Shivada Nair
Director: Dhilip Kumar
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Pretty images, commendable performances and seductive ideas about love and loss, and about the tranquility and turmoil of memory, abound in Maara, directed by debutant Dhilip Kumar and starring R Madhavan and Shraddha Srinath. The Tamil film, however, has little ingrained glue to hold its surfeit of sensory riches together.
Maara, streaming on Amazon Prime, presents a colourful dreamscape - multi-hued, evocative and filled with light. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is a well-crafted film that allows its soul to be overwhelmed by surface gloss. Like its two principal characters - Maara (Madhavan) and Paru (Srinath) - the romantic drama meanders in search of depth.
When the over-plotted 150-minute-long Maara does begin to show signs of inching towards what resembles a relatable emotional core, the film is on its last legs and barely in a position to break into a canter and make amends for a leaden-footed lead-up. The loose adaptation of the 2015 Malayalam film Charlie falters because its most pivotal deviations from the original plot lack the requisite bulwark.
Madhavan fits the 'morally impeccable and ever-inquisitive artist' bill to perfection - he exudes a been-there-done-that air even as he convinces that he is on a perennial voyage of discovery - and Shraddha Srinath, playing a fetching rebel with a cause, conveys a world with her expressive eyes and radiant smile.
How one wishes there was more to this pair of 'seekers' than just the 'quest' that they are on. In fact, unlike in the Malayalam film that it is a remake of, Maara is at its best when it moves beyond the lead pair and turns the spotlight on an older man, Vellaiya (Mouli), who has been pining for his lost love for five decades. Vellaiya's story is connected with a myth narrated on a bus journey to Paru the child. It is a saga of an unvanquishable soldier, a fish inside which the warrior's soul resides, and a conch shell that serves as a means of communication between the human hero and his piscine ally. On this intriguing fable rests the final quarter of the film, which belongs almost wholly to the avuncular Vellaiya.
A love story from half a century ago has a happy, if not a-happily-ever- after, culmination, and another affair blossoms at the end of a long quest by a young Chennai woman fleeing from the prospect of an arranged marriage. The lady, a conservation architect, puts her work on the backburner and heads to Ooty after she discovers, and is fascinated by, an enigmatic and shadowy artist who has painted the walls of Kochi with scenes from a story she heard as a child.
The lingering ache of an unrequited, inchoate love and the ecstasy of making a new connection in the present intermingle in an indolent climax that, in the manner of the rest of the film, promises much more than it actually delivers.
The possibilities are never less than immense, but Maara is more intent on working on varnishing its superficial veneer than on achieving genuine psychological depth. The conceits at the film's core - many of which revolve around the power of art to bridge chasms (witness Maara's wall paintings and sketches that excite Paru) - needed far sharper adumbration for them to play out in a fuller, more haunting manner.
Every story in Maara has another story behind it. Unfortunately, not only does this web of tales take ages to emerge from the folds of the narrative, it is also never entirely convincing despite the best efforts of the actors, including Padmavati Rao in a cameo of two impactful sequences.
The heroine, who rents a part of Maara's Kochi heritage home when she travels to Kerala for a restoration project, stumble upon a scrapbook in which the artist has sketched faces and moments from his life. Paru goes looking for the individuals who figure in the drawings. She is keen to figure out how an absolute stranger is privy to the story that a nun told her so many years ago.
On cue, line drawings alluding to incidents from Maara's life morph into elucidatory flashbacks - a device that strains credibility but yields tantalizing drama. The male protagonist emerges from these fragmentary capsules as an exceptionally magnetic man, an inveterate wanderer, a free spirit perennially on the lookout for fresh inspiration and, above all, a saviour of damsels in distress. The last-mentioned attribute is highlighted especially on one New Year's Day that links Maara to a thief (Alexander Babu) who breaks into his house, a sex worker (Abhirami) he offers a kulfi to, and a young lady doctor (Sshivada).
The prostitute Selvi, her young daughter Rani (Nakshatra Prashant) and the doctor are the women that Maara helps. It is evident that this man is a paragon of virtues. He casts a spell on Paru well before she meets her person. The antiques and works of art that clutter Maara's messy home and an unfinished telephone conversation with him are all that Paru needs in order to be drawn to him.
Not all the women that Maara rescues live to tell the tale, but their sad, hapless state and his unwavering altruism serve to augment the halo around him. All this is for the purpose of justifying the young lady's unrelenting pursuit of a man she knows little about.
The finale of Maara pans out in Ooty where former theatre actor and retired postman Vellaiya runs what looks like an old age home and medical facility. All the major surviving key characters inevitably end up there as the ageing bachelor still hopes to meet the girl he fell in love with and wrote an undelivered letter to many decades ago.
The past weighs heavy on everybody here. Vellaya has a trunk full of returned missives that remind him of what he has lost. His worst fear is that he might forget. He keeps poring over the fading letters. Maara lives in a home that is strewn with figurines, busts and sketches that speak of a past crying out to burst forth into the present. Parvathi digs into the treasure trove of clues that Maara's artistic outpourings offer. And Doctor Kani learns to live down a costly error that marred the first surgery of her career.
In one crucial segment early in the film, an old antique dealer and collector Usman Bhai (M.S. Baskar) escorts Paru to an old Kochi building that Maara saved from demolition by turning its walls into public artworks - and a tourist attraction. The coating on Maara is somewhat like the paintings on the exterior of the endangered structure, but it cannot deflect the film away from its stretches of tedium.