It's going to be nearly two years since Sudha Kongara's Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru released, and we are yet to see a character like Bommi or a love of the kind that brewed between Maara and Bommi talk of venture capitalists and dreams of opening a low-cost airline and a bakery, respectively.
And so, while the nation celebrates the five National Awards the film has won – Best Feature Film, Best Actor (Suriya, shared with Ajay Devgn for Tanhaji) Best Actress (Aparna Balamurali for her feisty Bommi), Best Background Score (GV Prakash Kumar) and Best Screenplay (Shalini Usha Nair and Sudha Kongara) – it is also important to revisit it to see if it has stood the test of time. And to see why Soorarai was a daring attempt by Sudha Kongara, who chose to retell the story of a living person in the commercial format, and by Suriya, who starred in and produced a film made for theatres but took the difficult but pioneering call to release it on OTT.
A Vulnerable Hero
The film, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is also interesting because of the way in which Sudha, along with her writing group, worked on a script where the hero is shown as vulnerable. Though eventually it turns into a victor’s tale, it does show him down in the dumps and that he is dependent on his wife, financially.
Many people, including some of the writers, did question Sudha if it was a smart move to show him borrowing money from his wife.
In an interview with this writer for Huffpost India, she said: “I asked them, ‘What is it that irks you? All of you have done it with your wives. They earned when you were trying your luck in the movies, so why can’t you see another man do that?’” The only male who did not have an issue with that scene was apparently Suriya.
Sudha got total backing from the star she chose to make her movie with. Suriya knew her from her AD days with Mani Ratnam, and he knows her fondness for action. Don't be fooled by her fondness for tic-tac clips – she's as fond of the cycle chain sequence in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya.
If Maara was arrogant, confident and vulnerable, Bommi was all of those things too. And, she loved to eat. When was the last time a heroine in a Tamil movie heartily dug into her food even while others around her yelled and screamed at her about her choices?
From Air Deccan's Story to a Love Story
The genesis of the film was possibly a trip Sudha and her family undertook in 2003 – where a cousin managed to book two Rs 1 tickets to their destination on a new airline called Air Deccan, launched just that year. Captain GR Gopinath, retired Air Force Officer, began Air Deccan with a dream to ensure inexpensive flights that anyone could take. His autobiography Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey narrates the difficulties he went through to launch the airline.
Soorarai Pottru draws from the book, and the many extensive conversations between Sudha and Gopinath. It is a fictional account but one that underlines the fierce determination that saw Gopinath succeed.
In the film there are songs and some over-the-top scenes, all part of the commercial film space. And, Sudha says the awards are a validation of the creative choices made during writing and filming. She wanted the film to look and feel a particular way.
So, does the film still work? Yes, it does. When Maara finally triumphs and tears line Suriya's eyes on seeing people from his village travel in the flight, and when Urvashi breaks down seeing her son's success, it is difficult to remain unmoved. Because, many of us and our parents flew for the first time in an Air Deccan aircraft. It was the first flight my father took too. It was the one place where the staff was courteous to all, especially to first-time travellers.
Bommi says, earlier in the movie, that all the people who made the rules were those who already had financial and social capital. Maara finally breaks those very rules and opens the skies to all.
Soorarai Pottru also brings to life the inequalities, the kind of poverty and lack of influence that prompts someone to go ahead and do something big. It is a film that showcases the utter conviction of a mother, and shows a man rising from under the weight of an entire village's aspirations. But, it is also a beautiful love story among equals, two seemingly hot-headed people who achieve what they set out to do. They are such a tight unit, they just need the other to keep going.
(Subha J Rao is a senior film journalist who has written extensively on South Indian cinema.)