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There are no half measures with Don. There is no subtlety either. And Don, being self-aware, seems adamant that entertainment lies in oversimplified writing and over-the-top performances set on the gallery, even if actors sometimes break character. It’s a film about college life, and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the film’s zest for entertainment and the reckless exuberance of youth. The college where the film is set is called… Best Engineering College.
And you are not introduced by the usual, direct shot of Chakravarthy (Sivakarthikeyan) walking through his gate on the first day, but by a college commercial running in the theater, like the many commercials that run before the screening of a film . This is to amuse you, the viewer, and more importantly, to position you against the college and against the protagonist, Chakravarthy. Just like him, you dislike Bhoominathan (SJ Suriya), the head of discipline (an Umbridge-like position I didn’t even know colleges had). Just like him, you dislike his father (Samuthirakani). You don’t worry that Cibi, sorry, Chakravarthy has as many arrears as Bhoominathan has rules, and you don’t even worry that he’s almost always on the verge of dismissal. You’re tied to Chakravarthy’s perspective, and I enjoyed that this film surprisingly forces you to examine your own judgment of what’s happening for much of the film.
Don is a celebration of the college spirit, and for the young it’s contemporary while for the old it’s a touch of good old-school nostalgia. It reminds us of silly times when “TC” was a dreaded word. And in retrospect, you realize that it wasn’t the possibility of being fired that scared you, but the possible condemnation of family and society. You remember how teachers seemed heartless, how friends reigned supreme, how career choices changed so often…
In Don, that last idea is comfortably extended to the end – and of course Chakravarthy finds his passion – but I loved that the film tries to normalize not knowing what you want to do, especially at an age when you know so little about the world…and yourself. While the film talks, without breaking a sweat, of the many ridiculous expectations that choke teens, it also covers college life in loving detail, including canteens and culture that manage to find meaning in the story as well. The canteen, for example, gives Chakravarthy an effective way to rebel against Bhoominathan (SJ Suryah, in a cameo of sorts).
With a movie that’s 160+ minutes long, it might be in danger of becoming a bit boring after a while, but director Cibi is as restless as a college kid – and I mean that as a compliment. As time goes by, the Chakravarthy-Bhoominathan conflict establishes itself and it feels like there isn’t much else. And yet the film continues in an enterprising way in the other half. Bhoominathan’s solution to the Chakravarthy problem is clever and fit for purpose.
Chakravarthy’s rebellious reaction results in the teachers having to write exams, and this leads to perhaps the most entertaining phase of the film, where student-teacher identities are swapped. The director provides us all with plenty of catharsis for what we heard growing up in educational institutions, including the infamous response when you’ve forgotten something: “Saapda marandhiya?” (In an earlier riotous scene, Chakravarthy says yes and leaves gone to eat). Or how about Chakravarthy and his friends sitting next to a professor and staring intently into his eyes while he writes an exam – as revenge for the fact that it used to be the other way around? These are hilarious passages and a testament to the director’s astute observations on college life.
It helps him that Sivakarthikeyan is great with such humor. Watch him stand quite defeated, dressed in uniform and carrying books that don’t interest him. Anirudh’s background music is simply the sad version of “Baasha Paaru,” and for a minute it’s easy to forget that this actor is a real star – and that ability to make us forget that is this actor’s forte. He can play not only a college student, but also a student. It’s well known that he has a great sense of humor, but in this film he shows a genuine interest in climbing into the emotional parts as well, as evidenced by this final, unexpectedly moving stretch.
Some of the lyrics are often a little too zealous to make an impact, and as such this film tends to be overdone in text and performance from time to time. Chakravarthy’s father doesn’t like his son’s career choice and his response is to bring home a madman who failed in the same career. It’s extreme, a little too dramatic, but this film stays conscious of that. In the very next scene, Chakravarthy’s friend says, “Unakku manda kodaichal kudukarthukku unga appa room pottu yosipaar pola…” That’s exactly what I thought too.
However, all that confidence still doesn’t help sell Chakravarthy’s relationship with Angayarkanni (Priyanka). The humor is okay, but all she is is the “vellai nilaa” as he calls her. She’s the usual crutch woman usually shown in these movies, and even any objection she has to his refusal to accept their relationship isn’t much. There are a few songs based on the two, with Anirudh’s “Private Party” being a particularly pleasant distraction.
Don may have the looks of a fun college movie, but there’s solid emotion at its core. While our sympathies lie with Chakravarthy, the film is a reminder that he’s still a naïve college student who lacks the ability to see the bigger picture. I liked the maturity of the writing in these spaces and enjoyed that there is no one really evil in Don. The two “bad” men, Chakravarthy’s father and Bhoomi, even evolve during this film. At a time when even heroes played by stars don’t evolve in films, it’s quite special to see supporting characters have an arc. But wait, am I saying that Don is an example of great storytelling? Does the film convey something revolutionary? The answer is no on both counts, but sometimes the bigger question is whether the lack of finesse and novelty gets in the way of entertainment? That would be a resounding no from me.
Directed by Cibi Chakravarthi
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Priyanka Mohan, Samuthirakani, SJ Suryah