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Tamil cinema’s go-to man for common man roles delivers the goods yet again, but the real screen-hog in Bharatbala’s Maryan is Parvathy.

Dhanush has made it a habit of stealing scenes from under the noses of better endowed and conventionally attractive performers through his remarkable ability to depict ordinariness. In Maryan, he finally gets worthy competition from Parvathy, whose importance to the storyline almost cancels out the by-now mandatory scenes of violence against women in movies set among working-class people. Her character Panimalar gets slapped around by the man she wants to marry in the interests of realism, we suppose—the only regretful sign of submissiveness in an otherwise strong-willed and independent-minded character.

Panimalar’s beau, Maryan, is a proud fisherman who likes nothing more than to knock heads with fish. But when we first meet him, he is watching the pages of the calendar turn at a construction site in Sudan, waiting for a two-year contract to wind down. Maryan swaps the sea for sandy terrain to pay off a loan and is on the verge of returning when he is kidnapped by Sudanese militants for ransom. The movie, loosely based on a real-life case, cuts between past and present, hunger-driven misery and happier memories, aridity and lushness, and the desert and the sea. Of all the striking visual passages created by Belgian cinematographer Mark Koninckx, the most powerful ones depict the literal and metaphorical contrasts between land and water. This is what Mani Ratnam unsuccessfully tried to do in Kadal, we suppose.

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