Is watching Nanban (English: Friend), the Shankar-directed Tamil remake of Hirani's Hindi all-time blockbuster 3 Idiots, a bit like just rewatching the original? Yes.
Does it really matter? To me, it didn't.
It all comes down to the age-old question of cinema: what (if anything) should you remake, and how should you remake it? I think regional language remakes are universally accepted in Indian cinema. What about when the original is pitch-perfect film making? I get the sense the makers of Nanban did not want to mess with a good story that hits all the right notes, so what they did instead is go a little too faithful - every last little comedic detail is copied from the original, and only on occasion is a little local flare added.
The principals are all very good and true to their Hindi counterparts. Vijay especially manages to evoke with his acting precisely the same kind of character that Aamir made Rancho into. The same playfulness, optimism and good nature is present in Vijay's Pari. Some might say he's just aping Aamir, but in my mind more thought has to have gone into his process than merely taking cues from Aamir's original performance. The character of Raju is now Senthil, but almost eerily similar and played by a guy called Jeeva, who looks so much like Sharman Joshi it's a bit bizarre. Madhavan could've reprised his role as Farhan, I guess, but this Tamil counterpart is now called Venkat and played by Srikanth.
Kareena's spunky Pia has become Ileana's equally spunky Pia. The chemistry between her and Vijay never quite reaches the level that Aamir and Kareena achieved in the original, but they are helped along considerably by the two awesome songs they are given to perform together. But more on that later.
The two principals that weren't up to the task, in my mind, were the Tamil versions of Boman Irani's Virus and Omi Vaidya's already-legendary Silencer character. Both comedic villains come off as hopelessly cartoonish, which I suppose was a problem with Boman's character in the original, but not to this extent. They are just rather annoying.
As the plot is literally scene-for-scene recreated from 3 Idiots, let us focus on what's different. Shankar (pictured here with Ileana) has obviously wanted to honour the original - or was too lazy to think of ways to change things in his own version, I like to think it's the latter. However, the man (who is of course one of my favourite Indian directors) knows what people expect from him, and in not changing the original story or its execution, he does leave a mark on the film with the song sequences.
For those who are new to the magic that is Shankar, well, he really likes computer graphics. And I mean he really likes them. Can't get enough of them. This can be witnessed in nearly all of his films, be they mid-90's flicks where all that CGI thing was new or 2010 spectaculars. He also loves lavish song sequences. I'm pretty sure at least a third of Enthiran's budget was used on songs. Here, he takes the original Harris Jeyaraj soundtrack and spins it into a couple of very Shankar-like picturizations. So much so that "Asku laska", which takes place in the film where "Zoobi doobi" was in the original, is actually a brilliant navel-gazing exercise for Shankar, where he downright playfully parodies his own song picturisations from various films of his.
Suffice to say: it is brilliant.
I think Nanban does well in achieving a perfectly passable remake, that does shed some of the original's brilliance, but is nevertheless a fun viewing experience, filled with good performances (particularly Vijay and Jeeva). Some will harp on this film because it didn't change much, but the same folks would have hated it, had Shankar taken a more original route with his remake. It does feel like a rewatch of the original - but a supremely fun rewatch, and one that I certainly enjoyed.