Review: Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu

Posted on August 27, 2006


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The story of a police investigation is detailed in a smart, grown-up movie that gets most things right.

AUG 27, 2006 – THE CHENNAI PAPERS THESE DAYS are full of ads about Kamal Hassan’s shooting-in-progress Dasavatharam – could this be a first, that we’re seeing publicity for a movie that’s just begun to be made? – and each time I catch one of these ads, my reaction is an inward groan. It isn’t that I’m not looking forward to the film. (I am. I really am.) But the thought of Kamal playing ten roles – or the thought of him playing a dwarf, or a woman in a nine-yard sari, or a village yokel with a handlebar moustache, or an accident victim with soda-bottle glasses and a scar and a limp, or a bulked-up psychopath with a shaved head, or a hard-of-hearing naïf with a earpiece – is a bit exhausting because I’m never sure if I’m being asked to respond to the performance or the gimmick behind its conception. On one level, yes, it’s thrilling to have this huge, huge star take all these risks and disfigure his good looks – and you have to admit he looks good even today – for the sake of our entertainment. (And for that, I’m certainly grateful.) But a part of me also yearns for the times I used to enjoy Kamal’s performances without having to acknowledge how hard Kamal was trying to disguise the fact that it was him that was giving these performances.

One of the great pleasures of Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is that it is anchored by a Kamal Hassan performance by an actor who actually looks like Kamal Hassan, walks and acts and talks like him. There’s no accent, no face-altering makeup, no showy body-language transformation; there’s just a smart moustache that angles downwards at the edges. Otherwise, it’s the Kamal we all know, the Kamal who’s grown up and aged before our eyes on screen. He’s bulkier now, in that fleshy, middle-aged way – and this extra baggage adds layers of world-weariness to the character (of DCP Raghavan) that no mere prosthetics could. By now, we are familiar with the effects Kamal uses as an actor – the tilt of the head as he’s appraising someone, the way that sandpaper voice cracks in the emotional moments, the closing of the eyes accompanied by the guttural sigh as he’s trying to compose himself – yet there’s something fresh about the way he adopts these tics here. Maybe it’s because we’re seeing him in a cop’s uniform after so long, and maybe it’s because there’s no distraction due to props and we’re free to sit back and relish the lightest of touches – the startled look as he bumps into a girl in a disco, the grim acknowledgement of Prakash Raj (in a wonderful cameo) as the latter receives him at the airport – as well as the big, actorly flourishes.

The fact that this is a Serious Kamal Movie – you know how he alternates one for the classes with one for the masses – and the fact that Kamal plays a cop made me think Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu would be in the tradition of Kurudhipunal. There too, Kamal was a cop, and the film was a sombre meditation on the nature of terrorism, among other things. But I was wrong. This is more along the lines of Soorasamharam, a simple, straightforward thriller; rather, it’s the thriller that Soorasamharam wanted to be but so miserably failed to become. If you strip away the externals, this is just another masala movie. There’s nothing more to it than the fact that Raghavan takes on a case and tracks down the killers, while attending to some personal business on the side with Aradhana (Jyotika). And nothing spells out these masala-movie intentions more than the first sequence, where our hero kicks open the gate that leads to where a villain is, and proceeds to single-handedly rout the bad guy and his numerous henchmen; after he finishes, the camera revolves around him in the manner of a faithful devotee circumnavigating the statue of his favourite deity. They couldn’t have been more blatant about this being a hero establishing sequence if they’d inserted a title card that said “Hero Establishing Sequenceâ€?. Soon after, we have the super-snazzy opening credits – set to the catchy Harris Jayaraj number, Karka Karka – where Raghavan demonstrates what the lyricist Thamarai eloquently terms nara vettai; he hunts down a bunch of bad guys and beats them up. At that point, I knew what director Gautham (he’s dumped the “Menonâ€?) was after: a straight-on variation of the cops-and-robbers – here it’s cops-and-killers – action thriller. But I wasn’t quite sure how this formulaic construct would fit in with our expectations, our greedy expectations of that “something newâ€? from each one of Kamal’s releases.

But if that “something newâ€? isn’t there in the tale, it’s in the telling. After that explosive start, the film settles down into something we’ve not quite seen before in Tamil cinema: a police procedural presented in a dry, docudrama fashion. Raghavan goes about investigating a gruesome murder, and that’s what we see. He interviews the owner of a tea stall. He talks to a beggar. He follows his hunches. We don’t meet his family until well into the movie, and even then, we’re not quite sure who’s who. There are no cute introductions of a gruff father or a teasing sister. We don’t know if he’s close to someone, anyone. Nothing is allowed to distract us from his work – not even fancy camerawork. Except for the romantic flashbacks – detailing Raghavan’s brief time with his wife (Kamalini Mukherjee) – the palette is bleached, as if to inform us that, for Raghavan, life without her is drained of colour, and it’s just work, work and more work. More than any other film of this type – something like Pulan Visaranai comes to mind – Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu gives us a sense of a day in the life of a cop, as if an invisible camera crew followed him around as he went about his job.

Gautham does extremely well with these events that make up the exciting first half. I hated Minnalé, and was subsequently quite surprised by how good Kaakha Kaakha was, and now there’s this. We are familiar with directors who start with a bang – with a stunning first feature – and then disappear into thin air, and we call these first films a fluke. But with Gautham, it appears to be the other way around. His debuted with a fluke, all right, but only in the sense that what he’s made afterwards has been really impressive. There are still things I wish he wouldn’t do. He doesn’t realise that some things are better left to the imagination – there’s a lot of gore here that’s dwelt on with excruciatingly loving close-ups – and he gives his music director a little too much leeway with the background score (from the bugles and the snare drums that open the movie, Jayaraj drenches the soundtrack with the exact kind of bombast that the picture is trying to steer clear of) – but Gautham directs his story smoothly, keeping things moving with the hum of a well-oiled machine. Even the way he shoots his songs has become so much better. (I still shudder whenever I recall the sublime Vaseegara being picturised with those tubby pole dancers.) The mandatory number showing the hero and heroine getting familiar – the gorgeous Vennilave – is vibrantly shot in the streets of New York, which is where Raghavan is pursuing his case. And even in this pursuit, we’re not shown every step; we’ve seen police work on screen before, and Gautham trusts that we can connect the dots in our heads. And this makes the film rich in unexpected ways. The first time Raghavan follows one of his hunches, for instance, and lands up at the exact location of a corpse, I rolled my eyes and wondered if we shouldn’t have been shown a couple of extra scenes that led him to this brilliant deduction. I mean, he just stops his car and walks to the spot. But then we’re shown that Raghavan records his thoughts (about his cases) into a Dictaphone that he keeps replaying while doing other things, and suddenly it seemed logical that the facts of each investigation are so seeped in his subconscious that, yes, he would be able to just stop his car and walk to the spot.

But for all the detail and care that’s lavished on the protagonist, it’s when the antagonist makes his appearance that the film threatens to fall apart. There’s an awful scene where we learn who he is, why he is the way he is, and so on, and it’s so clumsily and simplistically done, it’s like a schoolchild reading out an essay he wrote titled “Me and My Motivationsâ€?. Part of the sneaky appeal of serial-killer thrillers is in the gradual revelation of the serial killers’ motives. We’re already in horror about what they are doing, and the best movies in this genre – Seven, The Silence of the Lambs – make us sink into further horror about why they are doing these things. There isn’t any of that here, and the person who plays the killer is encouraged to act out so broadly, it comes as a shock, especially considering how underplayed everything else is. What’s tougher to take is the way this character calls out to the gallery: he’s two parts put-upon Dhanush in Kaadhal Kondain, one part crafty Carlos the Jackal. Maybe this showiness was a conscious decision – an effort to please fans of regular masala movies, to give them something juicy in the midst of the dry, businesslike matter-of-factness around – but it’s one thing when there’s a compromise in the form of a gratuitous item number (set in Goa, with Mumait Khan), and it’s quite another when a major character is at odds with the rest of the movie.

But if Raghavan’s interactions with his nemesis are the weakest portions of Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, his scenes with Aradhana are among the strongest. Gautham continues to dream up for Jyotika parts that no one’s imagined her in before, and she contributes to the kind of mature romantic angle we’ve rarely seen before. It’s not just about boy meeting girl and falling in love; it’s about boy with baggage meeting girl with bigger baggage and tentatively exploring the practicality of a new relationship after their respective old ones have faded away. There’s a scene where Raghavan and Aradhana walk side by side and talk about their past, and their chemistry is so relaxed, so unfussily romantic, there’s really no need for the cut-away flashbacks that punctuate this conversation. I know it sounds strange to highlight the love angle as the best aspect of a serial-killer thriller, but that’s what makes this movie so interesting. The detective work and the mano a mano confrontations are exciting and well-done, but these aren’t exactly new for anyone clued in to Hollywood. But those incidentals, those notes on the margin – those are the signs that Tamil masala cinema, even with its unique set of conventions and must-haves, can grow up if it wants to.

Copyright © 2006

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil