Ethir Neechal is one of those films I’ve been meaning to watch for ages, mainly because I loved the soundtrack when it first came out, but also because I’d seen the video for Local Boys and thought it looked fantastic. It also sounded unusual, with a story combining an attempt to run the Chennai marathon with a romance and some comedy, plus a reference to real-life track athlete Santhi Soundarajan added in to the mix. Unfortunately though, despite a good beginning, the film loses its way in the second half where the light and breezy romance is suddenly pushed to one side by the trials and tribulations of a serious sports story and it never quite recovers. Still, Siva Karthikeyan is a likeable hero and there is that excellent soundtrack which makes Ethir Neechal worth at least a one-time watch.
The film starts with the woes of a young man with an unfortunate name. Kunjithapatham (Siva Karthikeyan) has endured sniggers and laughter for years as the short form of his name is apparently a rude word in Tamil. His one childhood rebellion to try to change his name resulted in his mother falling ill, so he decides to put up with his name and just get on with life. He’s fairly successful too, but the combination of an insensitive boss and a romance that falls through when the girl hears his name means that finally Kunjithapatham decides to takes his friend Peter’s (Sathish) advice and change his name. Naturally this can’t be a simple decision and requires a visit to numerologist Gunasekara Raja (Manobala) to finally come up with the new name of Harish.
No sooner has he changed his name than good things start to happen for Harish. He meets up with teacher Geetha (Priya Anand) and falls in love straight away when she compliments him on his name. Harish also gets a new job and makes a clean break with his old name and old life. Everything seems to be going along fantastically well until Geetha finds out that he lied to her to hide his old name. She’s unimpressed and Harish resolves to achieve something that will allow him to make a name for himself and make Geetha proud of him.
Harish decides to run the Chennai marathon, and not just in an attempt to finish. Oh no – nothing that basic. Harish wants to win the race, despite only starting to train when he signs up a few months out from the event. This is where Valli (Nandita) enters the story as a trainer for Harish and the story suddenly turns serious.
After a run in with corrupt coach Raja Singh (Ravi Prakash), Valli was stripped of her medal at the Asian games when she failed a gender test. Harish learns of her story and this gives him another reason to win the marathon and beat Raja Singh’s current top runner. The problem is that there is an extended flashback showing Valli’s struggles as a young athlete and the issues she faced in trying to compete. While I appreciate R. S. Durai Senthilkumar’s attempt to raise awareness of the difficulties athletes in India face, Valli’s story acts as a road block and completely changes the mood of the film.
Valli is based on the athlete Santhi Soundarajan, whose real-life story is compelling enough to be a film in its own right rather than just as a brief add-on as seen here. It’s not just that Valli’s struggles don’t fit well with the rest of the film but her story doesn’t add anything to Harish’s attempts to be accepted – despite both characters having an ‘invisible handicap’ to overcome. Valli is also fairly unlikeable as portrayed here and with her prickly and antagonistic nature it’s difficult to warm to the character. Nandita seems dull and lifeless in the role, although she is better in the flashback in the scenes with her father (Sharath Lohitashwa), so I presume her grumpy attitude was due to the director. The happy romance of the earlier scenes is completely overshadowed by her serious and dour attitude, so it’s a relief when the film does move on to the actual race and the mental and physical struggle faced by Harish. Even though the film stays serious, Siva Karthikeyan is a personable hero and the marathon is well filmed with just enough tension in the race to keep it entertaining right to the end.
Siva Karthikeyan does a good job with his role and fits well into the boy-next-door type of romantic hero. He’s in his element in the comedy scenes and has a good partnership with Sathish as the two play off each other perfectly. There are some very good moments in the early scenes with Geetha too and Priya Anand is perfectly suited to her role as a primary school teacher. She has a wonderfully expressive face and makes a good partner for Siva Karthikeyan as the two slowly develop their relationship with a few misunderstandings along the way. They make a realistic couple and it would have been good to see more of their relationship and the effect of Harish’s new determination as he started training rather than the shift in focus to a different story with Valli.
The best part of the film is undoubtedly the upbeat soundtrack from Anirudh, and thankfully the song picturisations are complementary to the music. In addition to producing the film and his guest appearance in the movie, Dhanush has collaborated in writing lyrics and by singing a few of the songs, while Anirudh also makes a brief appearance as a bar owner. Most of the early songs have a classic flash-mob feel as various apparently random members of the public join in, and the backing dancers range from obviously fit professionals to chubby lunghi-clad uncles in Local Boys. Boomi Enna Suthudhe has a particularly random and accident prone start that seems to perfectly fit Harish’s character.
R. S. Durai Senthilkumar seems unsure if he wants to make a romantic comedy or a serious sports film, and really should have picked one and stuck to it. The first half of the film works much better for me and I’d give it 4 stars, but the slow pace and sharp change in mood means that overall I give the film 3 stars. Worth a watch for Priya Anand, Siva Karthikeyan and for a chance to sing along to the songs!