It's difficult to review Nanban as a stand-alone film especially if you've seen the movie it is a remake of - 3 Idiots. Much of what I want to say is already there in the review of the Hindi version so it might make sense to read that review instead. Still, here goes...
Sure, Nanban's eminently watchable and has its moments - as did its predecessor - but it's also highly predictable as Shankar follows the template of the Hindi film practically scene by scene even dialogue by dialogue. Chances are - those who have not seen the original would enjoy this one more and yet be surprised at a comparatively subdued (and relatively subtle?) Shankar and Vijay. In that sense, the film has very little of 'a Shankar film' and the flair you expect from him. Shankar's film also seems 'smaller' in scale as Venkat and Senthil go around Tamil Nadu hunting for Paari.
It was a bit surprising when the Tamil re-make of 3 Idiots was announced. Of course, on one level our filmmakers all over the country run after any successful formula and are always alert as to which hit to remake but in the case of 3 Idiots - it being the most successful Hindi film ever in Tamil Nadu, it has been seen by enough people there as well. In fact, it was all the more reason for Shankar to give his 'take' on the film and its issues (and to be honest, they're right up his alley) but barring putting his signature on a couple of songs, he faithfully traces the original - even the weaker parts. Consequently, the scenes that worked for me in the Hindi version work well here too and those that did not, do not work here either. So yes, there are enough scenes, which are thought provoking, humorous, perceptive and even poignant. The sequences looking at the fallacies in our education do touch a raw nerve as we've all been stressed out in our student days with having to be bookish and score high marks in our exams.
That said, the film has its share of issues (and this even if I had not seen 3 Idiots) - the treatment of the lead character Paari for one. Paari is totally one dimensional, too good to be true, a 100% problem solver and little else. In any film, normally the hero has a journey and a graph maybe with the help of a catalyst and really the film is meant to be Venkat and Senthil's journeys with Paari the catalyst but the catalyst has been made into the hero thus diluting the script while at the other end, the main nemesis, Virus, is a loud, loud caricature. And the end - Paari is conveniently a huge success and a multi-millionaire and this somewhat defeats the message Paari and the film had been giving all along - follow your heart and dream and be happy - money is not everything in life. The emotional moments in the film are underlined with everyone in the scene repeatedly wiping their wet eyes - yes, we've understood - this is an emotional scene Shankar Sir, no need to milk it further! A couple of small asides - did Venkat's wildlife books have to be so tacky? And while copying the settings of the original, a few sequences do jar. Why was Ileana getting married in the North Indian style for one???
It's surprising to see a reined in Vijay and to be fair to him, he does create a likeable enough character and does carry the film on his shoulders. In fact, I thought he blended into the film better on a human level than Aamir Khan (too much the superstar) in the Hindi original. Jiiva is adequate, Ileana scores in her small role that appears more real than the look-at-me-I-am-a-Diva Kareena Kapoor interpretation. However, Srikanth is rather weak though he somewhat redeems himself in the emotional scene with his parents. That all the students are much too old for their characters is, I suppose, a given in our films. Sathyaraj suffers from a cardboard cut out character but he is able to provide him with some flesh and blood when he finally comes around and his lisp remains consistent. Sathyan is loud (and irritating) but is meant to be so while Anuya Bhagwat is not bad in the small role of Ileana's elder sister, making the most of the few scenes she has.
Technically, Manoj Paramahamsa's colourful and vibrant camerawork is reliably efficient even if the standard overuse of the wide angle lens that plagues South Indian cinema particularly to compose obvious dramatic frames, and some awful use of the zoom lens is there, Harris Jayaraj's music is ok enough and Shankar the director somewhat comes to life while picturising Asku Laska. The background, however, hammers in the emotions in case you've missed them. Anthony keeps the pace of the film moving along, no mean task considering it is over 3 hours long.
All in all, while Nanban has its moments, I would rate this a trifle (half a star) less than its Hindi version as I believe that every filmmaker must have his unique interpretation and take as a director on his material but here Shankar is content to simply go through the motions of the original and though done effectively enough, there is really very little of him in the film.