Vaathi made both in Tamil and Telugu is the first Tamil film by Atluri. It has a magnificent cast of Dhanush who is also making his Telugu debut with the film, Samyuktha Menon. P. Sai Kumar, Tanikella Bharani, Samuthirakani and Hyder Aadi. The film is a commercial hit and its music given by GV Prakash is making the country groove to its soft tunes with the song Mastaaru recording 40 million streams.
Vaathi opens up in present times when three young boys finding it difficult to cope with their studies, find a box full of VCDs at one of the boy’s grandfather’s video shops, which his family is eventually going to sell to fetch some money as donation for their son’s Engineering admission. The boys thinking of the VCD to be containing porn play it and find a teacher writing up some trigonometric equations on the board in the video.
The boys then impressed with the teacher’s skills go on a journey to find him and land up at the office of one the teacher’s students who now is serving as the District Collector of Vellore. It is through him that the film goes back in time to the 90s and unfolds the story of Balamurugan, a young Assistant teacher at Thirupathi Educational Institutions run by Srinivasa Thirupathi who is also the head of private school associations who believes in one principal that is “Zero fees, Zero education.”
When the state government of Tamil Nadu to protect the failing government school structure decide to introduce a Fees Regulation Bill, Srinivasa plans to send underqualified teachers to the government schools of the State so that the Bill is not introduced and the interests of private schools be safeguarded. However, Bala unaware of his Boss’s intentions finds this as an opportunity to prove his mettle and excel in his career.
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Thus, he is appointed as a teacher at a government school in Sozhavaram village where he finds nothing but empty classrooms with no kids attending the schools and involved in petty menial jobs for survival as education is something their families cannot afford.
Here onwards Vaathi progresses showing Bala’s struggle in getting these underprivileged children to school and furthers his vision against his Boss’s model of Education towards a larger ambition of providing affordable education to all.
The 140 minutes film deals with the complex issue of privatisation and commodification of education and also touches on the themes of caste discrimination in the villages and schools. However, it does not completely explore these themes, making the Vaathi look loose in the second half where most of the conflict in the story is introduced.
What works for Vaathi?
Dhanush is a delight to watch especially in characters which require that mass appeal. Like in Karnan and Asuran, he shines bright as Bala in the film to an extent where one feels he has been carrying the film on his shoulders. Samyuktha as Meenakshi looks brilliant in whatever was offered to her as a biology teacher and Dhanush’s love interest in the film. Samuthirakani as the Bad Guy is perfectly placed though he has starred in an opposite role in the film Saattai which also deals with the flaws of the education system.
Since Vaathi is made both in Tamil and Telugu setting up the film in a village on the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border is an example of smart writing.
Apart from the cast of the film the music of the film adds up as the soul, and the background scores spell magic with some iconic scenes unfolding on screen.
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Overall, the theme of a Man against the System with some supporting characters with a commercial appeal packed with emotions and action where required is a hit formula and the same has worked for Vaathi hence it has managed to pull audiences in great numbers to the theatres.
Where Vaathi disappoints?
Except for Bala, Dhanush’s character all of the other characters be it Meenakshi (Bala’s love interest) or the villain, Srinivasa looks flat. Bala’s students in the film though portrayed as his backbone are not explored and one hardly remembers their names. The film is situated in the 90s but the writing fails to explore the period as well, except for a few shots with the Telephone booths and VCDs.
The shoddy writing at times touches on some complex themes like caste relations within the village and in the classrooms but does not dig into it despite that being one of the primary reasons students from lower caste and underprivileged backgrounds do not get access to education.
Vaathi talks of the issue of privatisation and commodification of education but does not explore the themes legally, politically, socially or economically but portrays the personal struggle of the man Bala trying to work for a social cause without addressing or criticising the system that gives birth to such inequalities.
Vaathi also talks about empowering women through education but has no strong women characters to draw inspiration from. Meenakshi who is a biology teacher and Bala’s love interest is written with a male gaze in the very fact that she is been given the role of a biology teacher while subjects like Maths, Physics, and Chemistry are assigned to men.
In the film when Meenakshi says to Bala that she would also start taking tuition to help him run the household after marriage, Bala jokingly says “Who will come to take Biology Tuition” which not just belittles her expertise but also highly stereotypes the subject of biology as a feminine subject and in the very next scene she is seen cooking for Bala’s family.
When her character is introduced in the film, the three new teachers of the subjects Physics, Chemistry and Maths that is Bala himself are seen to be fighting claiming who shall date her and threatening each other to walk out of their ways which is another example where the women have no agency or consent as the men go on claiming their authority to woo her.
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Bala’s mother’s character could have been a strong one at least the mother-son relationship could have been portrayed well but instead, the focus is on the men of the house with the father-son bond being explored. None of the characters among girl students of Bala has been written in a way to inspire or as a rebellious one.
Vaathi tries to deal with complex themes but does not seem to portray any possible solutions for the problems that have been highlighted throughout. The system of privatised education which Bala challenged stays in place. His and his students’ hard work is claimed by the private coaching institutions by offering them to become brand ambassadors of his institute to which Bala himself convinces them to accept and asks them to keep providing education to the needy by getting and settling into good positions.
Thus, even the personal struggle which seemed to be addressing and challenging a great flaw in the system neither changes the system nor wishes to pursue such a cause in the future. Even the dialogues fall flat in some of the most iconic scenes leaving it just to the potential of the actors to create that aura on screen.
The theme of the right to education has been explored beautifully in many Tamil films which were also commercial successes as well as critically acclaimed like Saattai, Raatchasi to name a few but as far as Vaathi is concerned with its brilliant cast, engaging music and a stellar plot the film flares successfully as a commercial entertainment project but genuinely fails to address the issues which it wishes to deal with because of its shoddy writing and flat characters.
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Vaathi does not raise even basic questions against social institutions like class or caste, or the politics of privatisation of education nor does it explore the economic restraints that make education inaccessible to a large section of students in the country and hence looks dishonest in its intent to forward the cause of education to all.