It’s either when the muscle-bound main character slaps his mother for touching him or when the deformed beggar slave children show up that Naan Kadavul puts its card on the table. I still have no idea what those cards are, but I know that they are there, and that’s the point. Unless it’s not.
If I’m being honest, I feel inadequately armed to review this movie – knowing little about Tamil region filmmaking, the culture of the area, and whether or not this thing is supposed to be funny, serious, odd or a musical.
The film focuses on Rudran (Arya) who has become an Aghori – a member of a revered sect – and repeatedly claims to be a God while smoking an unnatural amount of marijuana. He returns to his village and takes up residency in a cave near a temple where most come to speak with a religious leader with no arms or legs. At the same time, a blind woman (Pooja Umashankar) is kidnapped by a brutal despot and forced to work as a beggar alongside a troupe of the disfigured and the mentally handicapped.
The true difficulties of the film come from three distinct places. The first involves the length, and a first act that could be chopped off completely without losing much. The second is the oddity of the main character. He’s forceful, rude, random, and enigmatic. He also is terrible at fighting, but manages to take physical control of the area since apparently firearms do not exist in the area. Rudran, in short, is an asshole. He’s a religiously transcendent asshole, but he’s still an asshole.
The third problem is the failed seriousness of a handful of the moments. It’s impossible to reject the Fantastic Fest/Alamo Drafthouse environment that the film played in, and it sadly feels like so many of the schlocky movies that play on a weekly basis at midnight. The film rests somewhere in the middle space between intense drama and curiosity beyond standard, mockable weirdness. There are things to like about it, but there are also the unnerving, melodramatic looks from Rudran, some ridiculous lines, and the interspersed musical outbursts filled with overbearingly long montage shots.
On the other hand, the film tells a story about a group of disenfranchised untouchables that’s engaging even if it’s not subtle. The blind singer Hamsavalli’s situation is truly heartbreaking, and it’s told and acted with grace. It gets slapped in the face by the abruptness of the pot smoking God-man, but when those worlds aren’t combating, the cruelty of the gang leader and the warm community of beggars works well against the powerlessness of the kidnapped singer with a transformative voice.
The world that’s on display there makes it seem like India is plagued with beggars dressed up as Vishnu asking for spare change at the temple. However, featuring the untouchables isn’t exploitative in any real way. The group that thinks Freaks is exploitation may see this the same way, but the slaves in Naan Kadavul are realistic portrayals of the begging industry in a more severe way than the children in Slumdog were.
The movie is a mixed bag for sure, and it steps on its own toes, but there’s something worthwhile shining through all the ganja smoke and feather-teased hair. At the very least, it’s the best musical set in Tamil featuring a God with Farah Fawcett’s hair and a blind woman who is sold to a man with no face that I’ve ever seen.